The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, hold a press conference after the General Synod vote on women bishops. Photo: Getty
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Women are humans too – and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be bishops

For far too long, in too many spheres, women are told that their exclusion from positions of authority is simply a mark of their “difference”.

I’ve just witnessed a self-described radical feminist describing how God “created men and women equal – and different”. Speaking to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News, General Synod member Susie Leafe is expressing her dismay at the news that the Church of England has voted in favour of having women bishops:

What I’ve seen in society, and in the church over the past 20 years, is that when women try to take on roles that have been given to men, what we see is men disappearing and women’s roles being underestimated, undervalued. […] I’m all for women taking their places as CEOs of companies, […] I think it’s really important that women use their skills and abilities, but the church isn’t a job, it isn’t a role, it’s a family […] I’d hate to think that any girl who is born in England today thinks that she has to become some high-flying something in order to be valuable in God’s eyes.

On the face of it, it’s an attractive argument, one that’s used not just in theological debates but in discussions on childcare, politics and relationships. It taps into the feminist urge to re-evaluate what it is that women do and to say, not that women should be doing what men do, but that women’s work should be valued more. I’m sympathetic to that, truly I am, but I’m conscious that it’s also a trap. The point is not that what men do is more valuable; it is that the distinctions between what men and women do, and why, are not arbitrary. Women do not have to feel pressured to be “some high-flying something” to know that right now, they are simply seen as less. Presenting men in authority roles as carrying out some great male calling is all very well, but take away the leap of faith – which I will neither challenge nor buy – and we’re left with the same excuses as before. 

I am not a member of the General Synod. I’m not even a believer, but I am a woman and I am a feminist. We all have an investment in how women are perceived in the world around us. We do not live separate lives in hermetically sealed bubbles. One person’s misogyny, no matter how sincerely felt, and regardless of how it is justified, harms the dignity of all women. Writing on pornography, Andrea Dworkin – a radical feminist who didn’t have much time for weasel words about difference – argued that “the people who think that woman hating is very bad some places, but it's all right in pornography because pornography causes orgasm, are not feminists”. As a non-believer, I know it’s easy for me to translate that into woman hating not being all right in religion because it grants you salvation, but I think it’s true. And when there are people who believe that “men must never be taught by women”, I can’t see it as anything other than a fundamental belief that women are inferior.

For far too long, in too many spheres, women are told that their exclusion from positions of authority is simply a mark of their “difference”. That we are surrounded by evidence of the impact this supposedly neutral “difference” has on women’s lives – we are poorer, we have less freedom of movement, we’re less likely to have a say in the policies that shape our lives, our experiences are always positioned as “other” – is meant to be something we just accept. Nonetheless, saying women and men are essentially different but have equal “roles” is just sexism marketing speech. We all know this. We might tell ourselves otherwise because it makes us feel better but does anyone really believe women were born to be paid less, heard less, understood less, included less than men? And yet that’s what we’ve come to expect because changing things would mean changing the entire world, not because women have special woman-powers that haven’t yet been tapped into, but because we still see the default person as male. To suddenly realise that every single person you meet is just as human and just as entitled to take up time and space can be disorientating.

Women need to be visible. Not colourful, nurturing, motherly, spreading their women’s touch around those dull, dusty spaces that men alone have occupied for far too long. Women just need to be there, in plain sight, as equal human beings with talents that are unique to them (“oh, but not the same! Let’s make sure no one thinks women are the same!” says that nagging, separate-but-equal voice, frogmarching all men and all women into two rigidly differentiated camps in the name of “diversity”).

I want to see women having authority over men, not as part of some shoulder-padded aspirational feminist project. I want men to see women in the way women see men, and for women to see themselves as men see themselves: as real, solid, diverse, complete, as close to and as capable of representing whatever higher power any of us might believe in. We are not hollow vessels, waiting to soak up the teachings that only men can transmit, whether it be through theology or politics or porn. Freedom of conscience is one thing – no one should ever police what goes on inside an individual’s own head – but the fundamental humanity of women should never be up for public debate.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.