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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.