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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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.