As feminists campaign, there are still women who partake in misogynistic abuse - but in a patriarchy, this is unsurprising. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In this world that finds them repugnant, of course some women will be hateful towards each other

In a society which regards women as generally despicable, how can we expect women not to be self-loathing and not to direct hate towards one another?

Think tank Demos would like you to know that it has discovered something “surprising” about misogynistic abuse on Twitter, something that shows “this problem is more complex than it initially appears”. So hold onto your hoohahs (unless you were already holding onto it because a shut-in from Luton has offered to introduce it to a blunt instrument): this is apparently gender-politics shaking stuff. Analysing uses of the words “rape”, “slut” and “whore” on Twitter by gender, Demos discovered that “women use these words almost as much as men”, and not only are women using them, they are also “directing them at each other”.

Is that the surprise? That there’s more to woman-hating than men attacking women? Of course women use these words: they are part of the language that describes women, and one would have to grow up within a feminist version of the Plymouth Brethren to avoid learning that “slut” and “whore” are synonyms for “objectionable woman”. And more than that, it would take a uniquely sheltered individual not to absorb the lesson that women are, in and of themselves, generally despicable according to our cultural standards. 

My daughter (now eight) has taken to standing in front of the newsstand when we go to the shop for milk, and reeling off questions about the coverlines when we come out. I suppose I could make a feminist decision never to take her to the supermarket, and thereby avoid posers like “What’s ‘The sex shame my uncle made me keep’?” and “Why do you want to be ‘Beach ready’?” – but really, I think that even under patriarchy a child should learn how to buy food. It’s just unfortunate that learning the basics of functioning in the world means, for her, learning at the same time that she’s been born into a body that will never be good enough, and will always be seen as an invitation to violence from abusive men.

For women, self-loathing is practically a sport. We learn to exchange self-deprecating pleasantries in the same way that men learn to chat about football. Women trade self-inflicted barbs – I’m so fat, I wish I had your legs, Oh no but my bottom is too flat – with dispassionate connoisseurship, then go and look in the mirror and hate hate hate what they see. As bonding activities go, mutual self-disgust seems a perverse one to have settled on, yet here we are, hating in atomised unison. We spend money to fix whatever about our body is too big, too small, too loose, wrongly coloured or too hairy; or we assiduously conceal our aesthetic sins with carefully chosen clothes. And even after those efforts, we’re still not acceptable to public life, where women remain vastly outnumbered. In arts and the media, in government and politics, half of the world is represented only as a minority. 

How could women fail to divine that they are repugnant as a class? The entire world is built around that principle, and at the bottom of that principle is sex. Gender is, I think, a rulebook for occupying the body you’re in; patriarchy is the system whereby the rulebook for female bodies is drawn up almost entirely to the benefit of those with male bodies, who get to enjoy women as a reproductive resource. Crudely put, at some point in human history, males fixed on controlling females as the best way of ensuring their own reproductive success, and over time the forms of that control became codified as “man” and “woman”. There are as many variations on what “man” and “woman” consist of as there are cultures, but one thing tends to be constant: the females have to be policed. That’s why the worst words for women all imply sexual incontinence: that’s the condition we’re encouraged to avoid at all costs.

As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains in The Woman That Never Evolved:

“Even societies which appear to esteem women for their sexual purity and passivity nevertheless take extensive precautions to prevent them from breaching their chastity. On one point there is extraordinary consensus: woman’s readiness to engage in sexual activity is great enough that the majority of the world’s cultures – most of which determine descent through the male line – have made some effort to control it. The reason for expending all this effort usually comes down to Samuel Johnson’s conviction that otherwise there would be ‘confusion of progeny’.”

If women were not kept in line, one way or another, the whole of the world as we know it would essentially fall apart. At the same time that women are victims of this structure, we also belong to it; we recognise our own place in it, and our individual investment in reinforcing it, even when it comes at the cost of the class we belong to. The Mail pantingly reported the Demos research as “Women troll each other” (it would be more accurate to say “women trolled overwhelmingly more than men, mostly by men but also by other women”, but there’s always resistance to casting men as culpable). That’s the same Mail that employs Jones, Platell and Moir – all women, all engaged essentially for their skill at ripping into other women. Yes, the lady hacks are viciously despised in turn, but what a thrill it must be for them to exercise the power of woman-hating and be well-paid for it too.

There is no mystery to women abusing women. There is not even any great puzzle to women inflicting violence on other women – as when mothers or grandmothers organise FGM for their daughters, or when the female journalists on women’s magazines gently suggest their readers might be improved with painful aesthetic surgery. The needling voices of “it’s-a-bit-more-complicated-than-that” declare that this means it can’t be a simple matter of misogyny, but misogyny is, simply, the hatred of women. The word does not define who does the hating. Patriarchy is the control of women to men’s advantage. The sex of whoever exercises that final shove of control is irrelevant: if women are kept down, men are the beneficiaries. That is a patriarchy, and no one should be shocked that women within a patriarchy behave patriarchally. Hating women is always the easiest option. It’s the one we must refuse, deliberately and consciously. Resistance is in having love for each other – and ourselves. That is how we tear the world apart and make it better.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

David Young
Show Hide image

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