Why the feminist movement has to be inclusive

In her experience, TV presenter Charlie Webster has found that discussions about modern feminism can become confused and fragmented among all the divisive discourse about who belongs or doesn’t to the feminist movement.

I didn’t grow up to be a feminist. From a young age, I have been on my own little life mission, battling through, reaching out, developing my voice, trying to find courage and speak from the heart in spite of feeling vulnerable at times, and always, seeking that sense of worth.

As my career progressed, the question “Are you a feminist?” has come up with increasing regularity. Sometimes it feels less like a question and more like a challenge. I thought about the answer long and hard, more often than not getting confused about what feminism stood for, and slowly beginning to realise that being a feminist is less my own identity and more an opinion someone else has about me. I have my own strong beliefs and pride, but others challenged me as to whether I was a feminist or not based on the way I looked. It was a trick question. 

Feminism is and should be about empowering women, but the meaning of the word “empowerment” regularly gets lost. To me, empowerment is about giving a woman a sense of self worth. The word literally means ‘to enable or permit’. I believe enabling a woman to be herself to explore her potential as an individual, worthy of love and belonging, should be at the heart of feminism, and a woman’s identity should be her choice, whether it is focused on career, education or family.

The history of feminism and female empowerment is an incredible one, from the tales of Greek Sappho in 6th century BC who wrote poetry and ran a girls' school, to the strike by a group of women during the industrial revolution in an East London match factory that helped create the British trade union movement. A helpful and humbling reminder when we talk about feminism in the modern day, which in my own experience has become confused and fragmented among all the divisive discourse about who belongs or doesn’t to the feminist movement.

Feminism has resulted in major gains for women in education, security, opportunity and much more. However I am a completely self made educated independent woman who campaigns on social issues including domestic abuse and social change for young people, yet I have been challenged and judged by some feminists for the same reason I have been judged by some men – by the way I am perceived to look in my job as a TV presenter.

And I have seen feminists exclude men from activity, which has been directed at trying to change attitudes, which confuses me no end. Isn't it just as detrimental to exclude men from the discussion as it is to exclude women on other topics? We live in a society of both men and women, women have boys as well as girls, men are in most cases involved in the family unit whether they are fathers, brothers, sons, uncles or grandads. Isn't it just as important to teach a young boy about self worth and respect as it is a young girl? If attitudes in society are to change doesn't it have to be inclusive of both sexes? At the risk of stating the obvious, our society is made up of men and women. And going back to my point about empowerment, I believe men should be enabled to explore their potential as an individual worthy of love and belonging too.

Recently domestic abuse was categorised in some media as a women's issue...how ridiculous is that? How can it be a women's issue when it has such a detrimental effect on our society and the children who are theoretically supposed to thrive in it? How can this issue exclude men when they both play an active part and are affected by it? I'm not a massive fan of figures but on this occasion it says it all. Women’s Aid estimate the total cost of domestic violence to society in monetary terms is £23 billion per annum.

The reason some men use size and strength towards women and other men is that they struggle with their own self worth. Exerting their power and domination over others - men or women - is the only way they can make themselves feel like what they perceive as “real men”. If, as a society we change our focus to mutual respect and appreciation for the amazing things each gender can offer, public opinion would surely change and with it a movement away from the shaming, blaming and stigmatisation of victims of moral wrong doing. Ultimately men and women need one another, they always have done and I would have thought - dependent on technological advances in robots - always will. We all need intimacy, to feel safe and cared for, to have a companion through our journey. The difference between men and women shouldn’t be an oppression and it shouldn’t be a battleground. It should be embraced and cherished, and it is up to us women, as well as men to be inclusive and open to all members of our society, not just those in our own camp.

 

Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised by UK Feminista at the Houses of Parliament in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Charlie Webster is a TV presenter and founding ambassador for Britain’s Personal Best, a Big Lottery funded campaign to inspire the best in all of us: www.whatsyours.org.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue