It can be hard to keep track of what qualifies as Legitimate Feminist Business (LFB), but here is a rough-and-ready test that you can use. Step one: be female. Step two: publicly criticise the thing that you think might be sexism. Step three: wait and see if you get abuse for it, and if yes, congratulate yourself on having correctly identified some LFB. Or as Lewis’s Law, formulated by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, more elegantly puts it: “The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”
Unfortunately, the abuse you’re now dealing with might well distract and depress you so much that addressing the LFB will drift into the remote realms of unlikelihood – indeed, at least half the purpose of anti-feminist harassment is to grind feminists down past the point of doing anything – but there you go. At least you get the satisfaction of knowing you were right.
Right now, for example, Yvette Cooper should be feeling the warm glow of vindication. On Saturday, the Labour MP gave a speech to the Fabian Society which in part addressed the issue of online abuse, including that targeted at women of all political affiliations. As soon as it was reported, she was being called “bully”, “bitch”, “Tory” and “saboteur”, accused of using the abuse issue to attack Corbyn and charged with having failed to defend Diane Abbott. The abuse didn’t all come from the left, but a lot of it did.
Creepily, one hard-left Twitter account even published a photo of a clearly unwitting Cooper in the first-class carriage of a train, with the message: “Was it too busy in standard, @YvetteCooperMP?” Unless you think MPs have a sacred duty to travel in discomfort, it’s hard to know what exactly the criticism is supposed to be. The implicit message, though, was recognisable to anyone who’s familiar with the genre of the creepshot: we see you, we’re watching you, and we want you to know that you can never have privacy. You can never be safe. (Later, the tweet was deleted, with the explanation: “We don’t want to do our movement any harm”. Any harm done to Cooper was apparently irrelevant.)
What’s most bizarre about this is that it emphatically wasn’t Cooper who made abuse a factional issue. Her speech framed the issue with a criticism of Trump. She applauded Corbyn for his “empathy and compassion”, particularly in his visit to Grenfell Tower, and she explicitly highlighted the racism and sexism that’s been directed at Diane Abbott, correctly calling it “some of the worst and vilest abuse”.
You could understand Corbyn supporters taking offence if they’d been accused of being uniquely vicious. But they hadn’t been: no political faction holds a monopoly on misogyny, and women of all parties and none share the political condition of being female and being attacked for that. The attitude that snidely dismisses Luciana Berger working the double shift to campaign with a newborn, is only a breath away from the grotesque sexualising of Abbott as “Corbyn’s ex”, is barely distinguishable from presenting May’s childlessness as a politically disqualifying lack. It’s all the same shit, regardless of which clique is throwing it.
So why was Cooper’s speech responded to as though it was some kind of centrist power-play? Because – and this is the troubling bit for Labour – there’s a significant stripe of Corbyn’s support that has in fact embraced abusiveness as part of their political identity, and therefore reason that an attack on abuse must be an attack on them. They like harassing Laura Kuenssberg. Nothing said by their leader has dissuaded them from it yet. (He has, it’s true, condemned “all abuse”, but those who saw the footage of him at the launch of the anti-Semitism report laughing with the man who heckled Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth might not have got the message.)
Within this logic, sticking dehumanising invective on your opponents is seen as not a debasement of politics, but a good and legitimate tactic: there’s nothing like abuse for securing silence, after all, and nothing like silence for securing power. Cooper is absolutely right to call this “part of a wider attack on the very institutions we need to sustain our democracy”. It’s a war on women’s voices, and anyone who thinks they can keep it safely focused on “the baddies” is wrong. Hate will eat everything like fire. Labour must turn against it while it’s still got more than an ash-heap to defend.