Cut female Tory politicians some slack - womanhood isn't weakness

Equality means judging women by the same standards as men. Margaret Thatcher wasn't a bad women or mother - she was a bad human.

 

Being that, by mid-afternoon last Tuesday, we officially reached media Thatcheration point, it pains us somewhat to jump on this particular bandwagon. But there you go - we’re in desperate need of what editors like to call a "news peg" and she is ours. You might think that everything that could be written about Maggie T has already been written, and it’s true, a much more verbose version of this article probably has appeared in an undergraduate gender studies thesis somewhere, probably at the University of Sussex in 1985. But it is the cross which, as professional feminists, we must bear.

We’re assuming that most of you have already read Russell Brand’s heartfelt retrospective on Maggie T’s legacy, but if you haven’t, then the web editor has kindly provided a link. The piece appeared both on the Guardian and the Huffington Post websites, with the Guardian opting for "I always felt sorry for her children" as a headline, and HuffPo "Remembering Margaret Thatcher: Britain’s Unmaternal National Matriarch". It’s a fine piece of writing, about how it feels to be one of "Thatcher’s children" on this day of what Brand dubs "matriarchal mourning". It also rendered explicit a thought process that has been bubbling under the surface throughout the week’s eulogising: our determination, as a nation, to define Thatcher not merely by her deeds and words but by her gender.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad", wrote the poet Philip Larkin. If we take that to be true, then the last week has seen Thatcher’s children very much working through their issues, on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum, and endlessly and doggedly in print. "'Thatcher as mother' seemed, to my tiddly mind, anathema’," wrote Brand, as he struggles to mentally reconcile the role of  "warrior Queen" with "also gave birth", "how could anyone who was so resolutely Margaret Thatcher be anything else?" Meanwhile, to characterise the Telegraph’s coverage as one, long protracted wail of "MUMMMMYYYYYYYYYYY" may seem mockingly reductive, but. But.

Thatcher’s "unmaternal" hardness, her uncompromising, ruthless individualism, are qualities that are completely incompatible with how we, as a society, view womanhood. As a gender, woman are naturally expected to embody qualities such as empathy, caring, tenderness. Thatcher seemed to represent none of these things. Brand said that as a child he wondered from whom Mark and Carol would get their cuddles. Their mum was made of iron, after all. Thatcher was not soft like a woman should be, she was a mummy gone rogue. The mother of a thousand dead, as the Crass single had it. A woman who took milk away, when her natural duty was to provide it.

To some, particularly the lefty lower orders with their strange, mollycoddling parenting centred around love and nurturing, Thatcher failed as a woman. She rejected all those soft, maternal feelings that come part and parcel with the female sex. Equally, you could speculate that this is part of the reason why the male upper classes resort to such bizarre levels of hagiography when it comes to Margaret Thatcher. She reminds them of their own cold, distant mothers. Pack you off to school at four and be done with you. Hide and seek on the train station plaform, as you count to ten and mum walks briskly off the other way, to be worshipped from Stowe, at a distance, forevermore. No wonder they hate Nanny so much, with her welfare state safety net and her unconditional promise to look after you no matter what. Spineless helicopter parenting. What this country needs is some tough love.

Yes, you could speculate, but to do so would be bullshit, because, despite hundreds or years of stereoptyped gender roles, "monster" and "mother" are not mutually exclusive traits. To imply so buys into a quasi-Victorian narrative that motherhood, and the empathy that comes with it, somehow compromises rational thought. That there is no space for the emotions of women in the political arena, particularly not conservatism, which, being a selfish, uncaring ideology, is typically male territory. Just look at the way Louise Mensch (who for a while looked to be the next Thatcher) was treated when she gave up her position as an MP in order to concentrate on her children. Her refusal to pretend that they did not exist was seen as weakness. Likewise Nadine Dorries’  daughters were seen to be compromising her when they announced their existence by talking the press rather than being seen and not heard. Edwina Currie, meanwhile, makes a hard working mum who "went hungry to feed her children" cry on national radio, while Theresa May, in her capacity not just as Home Secretary but as Home Wrecker, coldheartedly breaks up families when implementing immigration policy which, though it may sound heartless, is what David Cameron pays her to do.

Perhaps the continued peddling of this line of thought goes some way to explaining the Left’s discomfort with Conservative women. It is as though their very emotionless, robotic existence does not compute, and it is to their detriment that they fell back on the "matriarch" as a trope. There is a fundamentally sexist school of thought that sees Tory women as strange, outlying creatures, whose greed and selfishness grate jarringly against their femininity. You could argue that, in order to succeed in public life, women have had to adopt many male traits, and to an extent you’d be correct. But one’s ability to reproduce does not preclude one’s ability to be a total bastard; women can be monsters too. If we are to demand full gender equality, then we need to judge women using the same moral scale as we do men. A vagina, and the children that come out of it, are not factors which make a female politician more or less evil than a male one, no. It is her actions, and her policies that do that. A traitor to her gender? Sure, but not because she made a bad woman or a bad mother, but because she made a bad human.

Margaret Thatcher in 1975. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.