Laurie Penny on the F-word in modern Britain: feminism

It’s not enough for us to sit back and wait for the system of power to become a little more equal.

What is it about the word “feminism” that frightens people so much? In recent months, as I’ve travelled around the world giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights, I’ve had the same conversation countless times: men telling me, “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” Or young women, explaining that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word.

“Feminism” is the one F-word that really will make eyes widen in polite company. Saying it implies you might have demands that can’t be met by waiting politely for some man in charge to make the world a little bit fairer. It’s a word that suggests dissatisfaction, even anger – and if there’s one thing that a nice girl isn’t supposed to be, it’s angry.

Often, fear of the word “feminism” comes from women ourselves. In many years of activism, I’ve frequently heard it suggested that feminism simply needs to “rebrand”; to find a better, more soothing way of asking that women and girls should be treated like human beings rather than drudges or brainless sex toys. It’s a typical solution for the age of PR and the politics of the focus group: just put a fluffy spin on feminism and you’ll be able to sell it to the sceptics. It turns out, however, that while a watered-down vision of women’s empowerment can be used to flog shoes, chocolate and dull jobs in the service sector, real-life feminist politics – which involves giving women and girls control over our lives and bodies – is much tougher to sell.

Whatever you choose to call it, practical equal rights for women will always be a terrifying prospect for those worried about the loss of male privilege. It’s no wonder that “feminism” is still stereotyped as an aggressive movement, full of madwomen dedicated to the destruction of the male sex and who will not rest until they can breakfast on roasted testicles. It should be obvious that, as the feminist writer bell hooks puts it, “Most people learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” As a result, most people remain confused about what the fight for gender liberation ultimately means.

Outlets such as tabloid newspapers, men’s magazines and sitcoms pound out a stream of stereotypes about feminism. It fascinates us, men and women alike, precisely because its ultimate demands for redistribution of power and labour are so enormous. The stereotypes invariably focus on the pettiest of details: an article about whether or not it is “feminist” for a woman to shave her armpits is guaranteed to drive a lot of traffic to the website of any ailing newspaper – but less so one about the lack of pension provision for female part-time workers.

Stereotypes of this sort are effective for a reason: they target some of our most intimate fears about what gender equality might mean. For example, attacks on “feminists” as ugly, masculine, even that worst possible slur, “hairy-legged”, contain the threat that being outspoken will damage our gender identity. Male feminists, when they’re brave enough to identify themselves as such, face being called wet or effeminate, or accused of playing pretend politics just to get laid. Those attacks are doubly effective because they have some basis in truth – feminism does threaten old gender roles, but only by setting us free to define the roles of “man” and “woman” however we like.

Often when women worry about being seen as “man-hating”, we are worried that if we ask for too much change, the men and boys in our lives will cease to love us. When men call feminists “man-hating”, the slur comes from a similar place: fear that women will be angry with them, or that they are to blame for injustice.

Yet one reason I continue to write, speak and campaign on feminist issues is precisely that I respect men. I respect men, and therefore I believe them to be far more than the two-dimensional creatures to which “traditional” notions of masculinity reduce them. It is because I respect men that I believe that most of them don’t want to live and die in a world that keeps women down.

Why am I a feminist, not an equalist? First, because any woman who seeks only equality with men is lacking in imagination. I have no interest in equality with men within a system of class and power that slowly squeezes the spirit out of most people unfortunate enough not to be born into wealth. I have no interest in settling for a few more places for women on the boards of big banks. I believe the world would be better served if we had no women in those boardrooms – and no men, either; not if they intend to continue to foist the debts run up by their recklessness on to the backs of poor women across the world. If that seems unrealistic, it is no less so than the idea that we will achieve gender equality within the present system in our lifetime.

Second, I’m a feminist because, in Britain, gender equality is receding faster than a bigot backing out of a single mothers’ meeting. Last month, the Sex and Power report by Counting Women In (pdf) showed that women’s representation at the top levels of politics, the media, business and the arts has dropped significantly over the past few years. The report concludes that a child born this year will be drawing her pension by the time she first sees equal representation for women in government, if she sees it at all. That’s too long to wait. If we really care about fairness between men and women, it’s not enough for us to sit back and wait for the system of power to become a little more equal. Gradual trends can always go backwards as well as forwards. Now, more than ever, it’s not enough for us to be “equalists”.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised by UK Feminista in October 2012 to call for equal rights for men and women. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.