The moment I saw the picture of the pink bus I knew Labour’s women launch was doomed. I’ve been to enough vaguely feminist events to know that two questions inevitably crop up. First, why aren’t any men involved with this? Second, isn’t pointing out that women are disadvantaged in any way deeply patronising, because it paints them as helpless victims? To this, there has recently been added a third query: are there any women’s issues at all, any more?
This challenge comes from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Libertarians assert that the pay gap exists because women “choose” to have children and damage their careers; and in any case shouldn’t we be talking about parents’ issues? Variations of “what about the men” ring through this argument: what about the men who look after children? What about male rape victims? What about male victims of domestic violence? What about male circumcision? From people who are in most other ways their polar opposites comes a similar challenge: not all women are biologically female, so isn’t it exclusionary to mark childcare and vaginal rape and abortion out as women’s issues?
My answer to both is the same. Yes, we often talk about “women” in ways which do not do justice to the variety and complexity of women’s experiences. But to abandon the idea of “women’s issues” entirely is to give up our ability to construct a coherent argument about the way that one section of society is silenced and discriminated against. If we refuse to acknowledge the existence of a system, we deprive ourselves of the way to make any kind of alliance to fight it. We are left like David Cameron, urging individual business leaders to pay their workers more while refusing to acknowledge the system that makes any rational economic actor exploit a disposable workforce with zero-hour contracts and attrition of their labour rights.
Childcare should be a parenting issue – but it’s not. More women than men stay home to look after children. More women than men face the inevitable setback in status and salary that this entails. Caring more generally follows the same pattern: 75 per cent of those who claim a carer’s allowance are women. The vast majority of nurses are women. The vast majority of primary school teachers are women. In our culture, caring overwhelmingly means women’s care. I would like this to change, but until it does, robbing us of the right to call it a “women’s issue” is robbing us of the right to speak at all.
I also feel a touch of nausea about the way in which issues of “low salience” – things that it is impossible normally to get people to talk about – suddenly become vital. Male rape victims face just as much trauma as female ones, and they have to navigate a system which regards them as the exception (something women have had to do for decades in other areas). It is hugely disrespectful to their suffering to invoke it only to shut a feminist up. Similarly, if you’ve spent the last two years gaily ignoring the Let Toys Be Toys campaign don’t have a Damascene conversion to the fact that pink for girls is patronising just because Harriet Harman annoys you.
So, back to the Labour women’s launch. The first thing to note is that they had one at all – and not some grudging, shame-faced sop, either. Actual money has been spent on this, and it was symbolically held in Labour HQ at Brewers Green in Westminster. As Harman noted, “I’ve had to get to 64 before I can do this.” My prospective colleague Stephen Bush notes that you could fit every female MP the Liberal Democrats have ever had into Labour’s 16-seater Pink Bus. (They also missed the opportunity to have a women’s campaign fronted by Lady Garden, which is a travesty.) You could fit all the Tories’ female full Cabinet ministers into a family pedalo, or even a bobsled if one of them sprained an ankle and had to sit the excitement out.
That’s unlikely to change in the next parliament. Labour’s research shows that 24 per cent of the Conservative’s candidates (both existing MPs and new entrants) are women. There are only 10 women standing in the 56 seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. Eleven per cent of Ukip’s candidates are women. For the Greens, it’s 39 per cent and for the Scottish National Party (which also uses all-women shortlists) it’s 37 per cent.
Much as it pains me to defend a party stupid enough to have a pink women’s campaign bus, the only reason that female representation in parliament has reached its current dizzying heights – 22 per cent! – is because of Labour. And at least the party is trying to talk about the burden of care, equal pay, rape and domestic violence during the election campaign instead of repeating “long term economic plan” like their lives depend on it.
The pink bus was a terrible idea. But still, on balance, I’d rather be mildly patronised than totally ignored.