It used to be said a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Surely then Conservatives claiming to be feminists is like Nemo competing in the Tour de France. But before the left dismisses those on the right who call themselves sisters, we should ask what we are doing to offer women in Britain an alternative and progressive claim to their future. We also have to remind some on our own side of the rewards to all in the pursuit of a more equal society.
Having more Tory women MPs in parliament has changed the political landscape. When giving anonymity to those accused of rape was first mooted, we worked across the House to stop the proposals proceeding. Their enthusiasm for this debate is a welcome sign concern for gender inequality is now perceived as mainstream.
Yet if we welcome their interest in feminism we also query their interpretation. They actually mean simply talking about women, not equality; hence their warm words are not matched by a commitment to action to address inequality. Tory feminism at its worst is about attracting female voters and liking the Spice Girls, a twisted take on the ethos of the film Working Girl. At is most consistent it reduces feminism to a series of yes/ no questions. Are you pro-life or pro-choice, pro-tax credits or pro-marriage, pro-Top Totty beer or po-faced?
Making feminism a ‘pick and mix’ of issues however important – whether genital mutilation, access to childcare or pornography – disaggregates each of these concerns from the other and the ‘big thing’ which underpins them all. For progressives, feminism is not about women per se. It is about this ‘big thing’; the power imbalances within society that mean 50% of our population struggle to achieve their potential – and the benefits to us all of acting to break these down.
These barriers appear in many different and connected ways. Whether economic – the persistent pay gap or lack of women in boardrooms, social – the provision of services to fit a stereotype of what family life should be, cultural – the proliferation of ‘lad mags’, personal – debates around body image, or even political – the lack of women in decision making. The thread that runs through all these issues is not who is affected, because we all are, but how the exercise of power enables exclusion and its consequences.
Seeing these concerns as separate allows Tory feminists to choose what is a ‘women’s issue’ and what is a ‘personal matter’. This helps square the circle of an interest in social inequality and being in thrall to free markets. So whilst they speak out about a lack of female TV presenters, they are silent when it comes to the impact of the universal credit on female incomes. It also allows them to discount the variety of women’s lives, so ignoring how gender intersects with social class, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. Attempts to argue those on low incomes have different needs or are affected by cuts differently are rejected as disempowering. That the women who do manage to break through the glass ceiling are predominantly from privileged backgrounds reinforces the need for an alternative perspective that recognises we all miss out when anyone is blocked from contributing to our shared future. So whilst we all may say we want women to be free to live the lives they wish, and that sexism is wrong, Conservative feminists offer at best warm words of encouragement – and at worst pass judgment those who struggle in today’s society simply aren’t trying hard enough.
Progressive feminism sees the problems and the solutions differently. We understand discrimination comes in a variety of forms and so requires a multitude of actions. That a cartoon woman in a bikini and bunny ears on a beer pump plate denote a society where a woman’s appearance is given higher priority than her ability. That this is in turn part of a global culture in which a woman’s reproductive capacity is used to objectify her. That ‘little things’ like airbrushing photographs and ignoring women sports players help make ‘big things’ like denial of democratic or human rights easier because they help devalue the status of women as equal citizens.
We also know our task isn’t just to identify these links, but redistribute the power and resources required to overcome these inequalities for the benefit of all. Having started the battle for a fairer society we must continue to pursue it or risk others appropriating it to their own ends. If the right wishes to argue money doesn’t matter and all anyone needs is ambition and a sharp suit, the left must fight for the greater prizes to be won when we all work together to break down inequality in its many forms. This is not just about changing a parliament when men still outnumber women 4 to 1. Societies with more equal distributions of power in all its forms are also more prosperous for all their citizens.
That means taking on not only those who want to turn the clock back but those who want to go no further – whether on left or right. Our challenge isn’t just to promote the timeless case for equality. It is to deal with the outcomes of our ’80/20′ society where “some” women in a boardroom or Westminster or a narrowing pay gap is taken to be ‘enough’. The stubbornness of this ratio in defining our modern gender divide is compounded by those who think they are on the losing end – whether within our party, business leaders or Tory women — and so seek to check any further moves forward.
To tackle this we not only have to highlight existing achievements but also how barriers to equality have moved or mutated — whether via the impact of the internet, Beyonce, or Arab Spring – even if the power underpinning them remain as ever doggedly defined by gender. In taking on popular culture’s depiction of femininity, the growing risks to personal safety or in the resistance to change in workplaces, progressives need to engage and empower a new generation of men and women who may call themselves “feminists” but believe the gains we have made are as far as it goes — and as good as it gets.
In doing so we should work with the Government where we can – and hold them to account for the things they don’t want to talk about, including policies that perpetuate, exacerbate or ignore inequality or disregarding the cumulative impact of the cuts on women. Whether reducing access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence, resisting equal pay audits or moves to curb access to abortion, women are paying a heavy price under the Coalition.
Progressives understand the value of a society in which women from all walks of life are supported to achieve their potential because of the benefits this will bring to us all. That includes championing how the changes we secured transformed Britain for the better for both men and women and the returns to come from further advances. To secure these we must ensure feminism isn’t only for women and dispute the right’s depiction it is about ‘issues’. As we celebrate International Women’s Day we should not calm down, dears. Sisters and brothers who want a more socially just, fairer and prosperous world for all: we only have our bikinis and bunny ears to lose. Girl power indeed.
Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow.