In a recent lecture the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard cogently argued that public attitudes to women in power have altered frighteningly little over the centuries. Even though there has been a shift as a minority of women have climbed to positions of greater public and corporate influence over the past few decades, the hostile treatment meted out to figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Caroline Criado-Perez would be familiar to the creators of Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone. But this depressing lack of change now needs to be set against the astonishing rise of new forms of female protest, with millions of women galvanised globally to rise up against the new misogyny and the old injustices.
The obvious challenge is how to channel this explosion of popular feminist energy in order to defeat the burgeoning forces of populism decisively. The worry is that feminist protest will be self-limiting, drawing its life force from women’s deep, almost instinctive familiarity with outsiderness: the same “exteriority” to power (stemming from both outer hostility and inner reluctance) that Beard sees running throughout history. It could be, she suggested, that women today are already exercising a novel, network-based, collaborative form of power, one that relies less on individual notoriety and risk.
Such themes lie at the heart of these four books, all very different from each other, published to coincide with International Women’s Day – proof at least of the presumed commercial buoyancy of the new feminism. Each tackles the question of power: how and why women lack it, how they might take it, how to personalise it and even, in one case, how to refuse it. What fresh insights and resources of hope do they offer? Quite a lot, I think, and often within a tough, but refreshingly realist frame.
Everywoman announces itself, like its author, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in a blast of “no-nonsense” noisiness on the cover. There’s loud black and red lettering, and a picture of Phillips in an arms-crossed, lips-pursed pose of bemused self-defence. The book, we are assured, is all about trusting her to tell us the “truth”. This, after all, is the woman bold enough to tell Diane Abbott to “f**k off” and Jeremy Corbyn that if he failed to keep his promises she would stab him in the front, not the back: a warning somewhat mitigated by attacks on Corbyn now being something of a national sport.
Wisely, Phillips – an MP only since 2015 – puts Labour divisions largely to one side. In fast, furious and often funny prose (Everywoman really does read as Phillips speaks), she recalls her own unusual journey from wayward Birmingham teenager to domestic violence campaigner to parliamentary champion, particularly of women’s interests. She paints a vivid picture of the price of public life for women, from “paternalistic shushing” and constant anxiety/abuse about our appearance (“I urge you to think about the men and boys you know. Are they knockouts?”) to multiple online threats of rape and mutilation and, in Phillips’s case, an understandable nervousness about conducting constituency surgeries after the murder of her friend and fellow MP Jo Cox.
For all that, Phillips is determined to encourage women to stand up and stand for office – and even to “relish your unpopularity”. If we really want politicians that look like “us”, she writes, then the public has to accept that it won’t be getting perfect people. She writes honestly about her brother Luke’s drug problems and her own screw-ups, in and out of politics, and in one lovely passage she anatomises human imperfection in general: “Everyone I know has something dark in their lives or in their family history . . . Our lives are full to the brim of stuff we wish we hadn’t done and people we really wish we could forget. It shouldn’t control our futures; it should only enhance them.” Amen to that, especially if it encourages even one reluctant woman to try her hand at public life.
Catherine Mayer has gone a step further than most women fed up with the “skewed” status quo. She started her own political party as a kind of dare after a debate held during the 2015 election campaign. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) draws its populist power in part from its media connections (Sandi Toskvig, its highest-profile supporter, occupies a position close to that of national treasure), the continuing frustration of millions of women at the failure of mainstream politics to address their concerns – and now Trump terror.
Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women is a companion piece to the WEP agenda: its aim is to sketch out Equalia, as Mayer calls her promised utopia. An engaging and sharp journalist, she updates the case for equality with fresh research and insights into the sexual politics of everything from domestic life and new technology to cinema and the boardroom. She also gives us a candid insight into the WEP’s attempts to make itself a truly intersectional party, as well as its internal debates on transgender questions, pornography and prostitution.
But who exactly, I wonder, is this weighty book aimed at? Won’t those who are drawn to Mayer and the WEP already have a good grasp of the issues and be perhaps more interested in activism than in a broad roll-call of gender injustice? Mayer has an answer to this, too, which she elaborates in one of her later chapters, on Iceland. This small nation is, in its own way, a pioneer of gender equality, a movement kick-started by the extraordinary “women’s day off” in October 1975, when Iceland’s women downed domestic tools and showed, in 24 hours, how much the country depended on the hitherto invisible labour of women. The WEP is planning a similar Women’s Day Off strike for the UK in 2018, a brilliant idea for an action that someone should have organised years ago.
I suspect that Jessa Crispin would give short shrift to Phillips or Mayer, with their belief in working inside the system and making men partners in change. But then Why I Am Not a Feminist is a provocation, a hand grenade of a publication, as its opening epigraph makes clear: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.”
Crispin takes as her role models second-wave feminist outliers such as Shulamith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin (the often reviled and long-neglected Dworkin has become a heroine for a new generation) and targets what she calls “universal feminism”, from consumerist to corporate variants. But the book was presumably written before the definitive rise of Trump, and so Crispin’s hostility to shiny, successful, insider feminism already feels like a tussle with a disappearing past. Naming no names, she reviles women who “line up behind female politicians, their support thrown behind them almost solely because they share a gender”:
Despite a long history of supporting military intervention, I watch women talk about these politicians’ natural diplomacy and how they’ll keep us out of war . . . Despite a long history of money grabbing and corruption, I watch women talk about these politicians’ sense of fairness and economic justice.
In Crispin’s world-view, women who take political power are bound to corrupt their own ideals, taint their own principles. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the eternal puzzle of why conservatives are more successful in promoting female leaders. Women on the right, with their belief in the power of capital, monarchy, nation and authority, have fewer internal ethical barriers to breach in order to exercise power, at least as it exists today.
Crispin has acute insight into the narcissism of so much “self-empowerment” guff and the blind alleys of “outrage feminism”, on and offline. But there remain odd notes in her provocation, such as her refusal to name names or make specific references, leaving her lurching from one generalised complaint to the next, like a tipsy bar bore. Very occasionally, she touches on a real-world example, as when she rightly criticises the summary hounding out of Professor Tim Hunt from University College London after he made a series of ordinarily silly remarks about women in science.
There is also something unsettling about Crispin’s tone in the chapter “Men Are Not Our Problem”, where she tells her potential male readership: “I don’t give a f**k about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.” Yet later, in that same chapter, she avers that “softness, vulnerability, nuance, compassion and care . . . are absolutely vital qualities that [women] should not be ashamed of”.
What does Crispin ultimately demand? Inasmuch as she spells out what she stands for, as opposed to what she abhors, it is a form of communitarian solidarity, a concern for peace and justice and fairness for all, a refusal to worship at the shrine of money. I may be wrong but I think we used to call this “socialist feminism”.
If we are to believe a recent Vogue profile of the novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be just the kind of feminist of whom Crispin disapproves. Her high-fashion collaboration with Dior on the creation of a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt was much paraded during Paris Fashion Week 2016. Did this project represent selling out or reaching out? Unsurprisingly, Adichie robustly claims the latter.
And now here comes another attractive, marketable commodity from Adichie – the slight but beautifully produced Dear Ijeawele, a succinct and lyrical manifesto for the next generation embodied in 15 (very pragmatic) “suggestions”, addressed at different points to Chizalum Adaora, the baby daughter of her close friend Ijeawele, or to those who are raising her.
In some ways, Adichie, a Nigerian writer who divides her time between the United States and West Africa, embodies the intersectionality and inclusiveness of modern feminism. Her critique of Igbo traditions and other Nigerian customs has not a whiff of apology about it, at the same time hinting at some startling differences in class relations, as when she urges her friend to teach her daughter that “the household help is human just like her” and that she should “always greet the driver”.
Dear Ijeawele reminds us that, in the history of feminist writing, it is often the personal and epistolary voice that carries the political story most powerfully – think of Sheila Rowbotham’s groundbreaking Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World of 1973, or Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). It also reminds us that not much is new. Adichie touches on many of the enduring maxims of women’s liberation, mingling this with a more contemporary, tough-it-out realism. Marriage, she urges, should never be presented as an achievement for a girl (but “romance will happen, so be on board”); gender roles should always be questioned; language matters; difference should be respected; sex should be discussed, often. And, in a direct echo of Phillips, she warns that women must firmly reject the snares of likeability.
For me, the most powerful sentence in the book is its simplest, and comes in only the third paragraph. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Ijeawele to remember to transmit to her daughter “the solid unbending belief that you start off with . . . Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.”
Such an assertion does not directly answer the problem Mary Beard posits about women and power. Yet there is no doubt that if we raised all of our daughters to believe completely that they “matter equally”, to trust what they feel and think and to worry less about how they look and come across, we would soon find new ways to challenge the multiple injustices and indignities that still limit, and even wreck, so many women’s lives.
Jess Phillips and Catherine Mayer will be in conversation with Helen Lewis at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 23 April
Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (242pp, £14.99)
Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin is published by Melville House (153pp, £12.99)
Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! by Catherine Mayer is published by HQ (352pp, £20)
Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Fourth Estate (66pp, £10)
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain