The recent refocusing of the feminism debate as a matter of left vs right might feel regressive, as hammily retro as a poor, pointed illustrative gag. But there’s more to the partisan approach than over-simplistic team-picking.
What began as an attempt to nail Tory feminists to their cross — first by Gaby Hinsliff in the Observer — metamorphosed into a full-blown battle of ideology, with the somewhat surreal sight of Nadine Dorries standing up in Parliament to challenge BBC sexism on Monday. How could Dorries, a woman who only days before was proposing we teach girls in school to keep their legs crossed as a method of birth control, now be demanding an inquiry into the lack of women’s representation in the media, citing research from her arch-enemy, the Guardian, as she did it? Suspending disbelief for a moment, it is possible that Dorries wasn’t co-opting a “women’s issue” for her party’s purposes. Even if the BBC is hardly the worst culprit, her point about media sexism was still valid. But the left wouldn’t have it, and as Laurie Penny, pitted against Louise Mensch, put it rather bluntly on Newsnight, some kinds of feminism are just plain wrong. The irony of one woman telling another what to think was not lost on the Twittersphere. Here, it triumphed, was proof of feminism’s inherently flawed logic: a movement striving for women’s rights championed by women that cannot agree on what is right.
All social equality movements have their separate strands. But perhaps the fact that mainstream debate has never really come to terms with the notion of “feminisms” has something to do with the sheer number of revolutionary turns the women’s rights movement has taken (even popular discourse manages to talk of feminism’s “waves”), and the fact that women are, paradoxically, a majority minority — a group whose life experiences, personal and social needs are about as diverse as you’d expect from half the world’s population. It’s no wonder, then, that left and right can’t agree. Of course, Mensch and Penny, Harman and May, right-wing think-tanker Charlotte Vere and Labour MP Stella Creasy (who had a politely aggressive exchange on Twitter earlier in the week) are striving for some common goals. But if one of you thinks more women in the work place is a matter of economic, rather than self-validating necessity, your ideas for how you not only end, but determine sexism, are obviously going to be pretty different. Sometimes it’s what the left and right do agree on that highlights best the discrepancies in their thinking — the issue of sexualised imagery, for example — and the fact that consensus on the what disempowers women, if not the why, can be reached. (Of course, there are always going to be libertarian feminists like me who worry about the potential censoriousness of female sexuality that might arise if we start painting figleaves on every gazed-at lady — but that’s a whole other nit-picking debate, and not the primary issue of the porny-society one.)
Tories can be feminists, then. They just might not be your kind of feminists. As Mensch pointed out on Newsnight, historically, the women’s movement is full of self-identified feminist right-wingers. But what the Tories have never been terribly good at is recognising the significance of intersectionalism on feminism — the notion that class, economic and social status, race, educational background and disability status might just affect the severity of inequality women face — and what powers they have to do something about it. A single mother and female heiress wanting to sell jewellery from a Chelsea boutique two days a week and a single immigrant mother on a Wakefield council estate wanting to work in the local supermarket two days a week might both face childcare issues due to male absenteeism. The means they have to tackle it are obviously going to be quite different. So when Mensch cited Conservative MP Nancy Astor as the first woman to take a seat in the Commons, what she forgot to consider was that Astor could combat the pure sexism she encountered (and there must have been some) with money, connections, and class privilege.
And don’t let’s forget the Man Question — which as the heat generated by Nicky Woolf’s post on the Staggers a couple of weeks ago proves, is usually where feminism reaches boiling pot. Intersectional feminism, it turns out, is pretty good at dealing with that too. If all women aren’t equally affected by sexism, it stands to reason that men won’t always automatically be the “oppressors”.
Tories aren’t the enemy then, any more than men are. Residual patriarchy, lack of legal rights and socio-economic privilege, meanwhile, remain worth fighting. For that, feminism needs a whole palette of combative colours.
Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.