Phrase du jour: "the new Tory feminism"

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

It started with the build-up to the release of The Iron Lady. In the past week, it's gained momentum with newspaper articles and magazine features about Tory women. And yesterday, Cristina Odone blogged on the "superior form" of "blue feminism". That's right - here in Britain we finally have our own version of the neverending debate that began across the pond when Sarah Palin claimed feminism for herself and heralded the emergence of a band of supposedly equality-minded conservative women.

Sure, our version doesn't carry the requirement to be in favour of limiting reproductive choice, the expectation that they'll be vocal Christians and that they'll champion those who choose to have many children. But in many other ways it's very similar - from the emphasis on personal achievement and success, the talk of the "potential" of women to the calls to "reclaim" gender equality from the left. And of course it's generating debate - for the simple reason that while the spokespeople for "blue feminism" are all about what a good thing it is, it doesn't actually have much to say about most aspects of most women's lives.

My disclaimer here is that as a left-wing woman, I often find it impossible to concede that the policies dreamt up and supported by the right can truly lead to any sort of equality. I think we need to be careful about being precious about left and right and whether a woman from the latter can truly be an advocate for gender equality - but at the same time there are some important points to make on the subject. I'm also really aware that in newspaper coverage of a subject like this, opinions and quotes are going to be cherrypicked to fit an agenda. So I'm not saying that these women have absolutely no interest in certain important issues. They're just not talking about them.

What we have are some glaringly obvious issues surrounding "the new Tory feminism", and while I may seem biased because I'd never vote for these women, this is my take on them.

1) You can talk about "merit" all you like but that doesn't mean you're good for women.

One of the main points to come out of all this is that apparently, your average Tory gender equality warrior has got her head screwed on properly because she doesn't believe in tokenism and quotas. Instead she believes in women getting to the top through hard work and merit and ambition. What that often translates as, of course, is celebrating the achievements of women "at the top" as empowering and inspirational. And much of the time, such women can be considered "inspirational". But at the same time, is there concern for tackling the entire spectrum of inequality so that women who aren't white and middle or upper class get to "rise to the top"?

Louise Mensch sees self-made women as the "essence of feminism" but I don't believe that an emphasis on personal success is the right way to go. It is, of course, very typically Tory - don't think I don't see that; don't say "well what do you expect?". Mensch told Gaby Hinsliff for the Guardian that she believes women should be encouraged to "chase money rather than career satisfaction at work". She speaks of "getting on" and "breaking the glass ceiling" as if it's the be all and end all of being a woman. People keep talking about "bootstraps" with reference to the way Margaret Thatcher saw everything. How realistic a focus is this for many women today? What hope for the disadvantaged and those who are discriminated against and those who actually, simply don't want to strive for buckets of cash and a seat in a boardroom? Making your interest in equality about profit and "getting ahead" doesn't exactly sit right with the current economic and societal situation, even if it does sit right with Tory thinking.

If, as Mensch believes, such success makes it easier for other women to achieve the same, why the complete refusal to admit that the cuts might be doing women a bit too much harm? Why the sneering from women on the right at feminists like Harriet Harman, or the refusal from women like Charlotte Vere to be lumped in with all those "extreme" man-haters on the left along with much talk about not wanting to upset or alienate men? I agree that this works both ways (we can probably be too quick to criticise those who are not on the left and assume that we can't work with them), but they're not exactly helping themselves. If we're talking about the "true blue sisterhood", I'm not feeling the "sisterhood" part all that much. It's not just about party politics and getting one over on the opposition.

2) Let's not pretend Margaret Thatcher was something she wasn't.

Namely, a feminist icon. Yes, she can be considered inspirational for the fact she was Britain's first (and so far, only) woman Prime Minister. It would be nice to think that in the near future, someone might follow in her footsteps. She showed that a woman can lead a country. But she had no time for "women's issues". She wasn't interested in solidarity and she certainly had no interest in equality of any kind. Michele Hanson summed it up last week when she said:

"The grocer's daughter who fought her way up to the top job. But what did she do to help other less fortunate women when she got up there? Even on the way up she'd taken their kiddies' milk away. Then she took away much of their affordable housing by egging everyone on to buy council houses. She privatised the utilities, and up went the household bills, and she crushed the unions. The miners' wives didn't have much to thank her for. And just to show that women can do anything men can do, she started a war, rode around on a tank in her headscarf, created loads more widows, thought herself terrifically grand and used the royal plural for her very own. What a wasted opportunity. From the great heights she looked down and thought not 'How can I raise up other women?' but only 'How can I poop on the poorer ones?' ".

Following this post on the Women's Blog, a woman wrote to the Guardian to tell of the time they'd written to Thatcher - in 1979 - to ask what she could do for victims of domestic violence. She had been running a refuge at the time. She received a response explaining that the Prime Minister was "not interested in women's issues". What would the Tory sisterhood have to say about such a letter today? We know they have concern about some of the same issues as left-wing feminists - porn, Page 3 and objectification are all mentioned in the Hinsliff interview. But what about areas where - unlike sex - feminists and the right might traditionally not overlap? And in the areas where we do overlap, how can we stop everything boiling down to a discussion about morality and actually achieve something?

3) A successful woman and a feminist are not the same thing.

Being a woman in a position of influence doesn't make you a friend to other women. It doesn't mean you have any interest in tackling misogyny, making things better for all women and changing attitudes in society. It might just mean that you're personally successful in your career. And if people think that's an indication of a gender equality heroine, they're confusing feminism with individualism. It's all very nice for the person in question, but for the most part, it has no bearing on the lives of other women or the global equality situation in general. To talk about getting more women from your own party in government, to crow about the fact you've set up a group for conservative women MPs - that's great. But what about the rest of us? Do we only matter when the government is worried that women voters are angry at them? Last year, when a leaked memo revealed the coalitions's plans to "win back" women voters, it came across as being about approval ratings and polls, about coming up with some plan to make us trust David Cameron again.

Fair enough, a successful and wealthy woman might be an inspiration to others who see themselves choosing the same path in life, but I'm not sure it goes much further. Hopefully, she can show men in her field that she's their equal. But we know that doesn't always happen. Cristina Odone's bizarre blog about the superiority of Tory feminism ticked all the boxes in assuming that power and feminism are the same thing - Thatcher as icon purely for being PM, an anti-quotas and tokenism stance meaning that Tory MPs know they're "the best for the job". And then there was the bit about "feminine wiles" being an asset to your average "blue feminist". Odone cited Louise Mensch's "gloss" as a prime example. This brings us on to the fact that...

4) Everyone is really confused about femininity. And it needs to stop.

The Guardian asked Louise Mensch about cosmetic surgery (and whether she has had any) in a recent interview. Certain newspapers gave her a telling-off (referring to her as "the twice-married mother of three") for posing for a photoshoot (for GQ magazine), to accompany a feature in which she talked about women in the public eye being trivialised over their appearance. Janet Street-Porter has gone for her this week too, attacking her for supposedly being interested in clothes and calling herself a feminist at the same time. I agree with JSP's concern about this new right-wing support for gender equality but really, Janet? Picking her up on her appearance?

Let's just stop talking about what women in politics wear. And what they look like. And their "feminine wiles". And what reflection it has on "the sisterhood" if they dye their hair. Because it has no bearing on their job. I often struggle with this apparent need from some quarters to wrangle over "femininity" so much - in relation to any women's issue, or whether or not people identify as feminists. If it's finding its way into a discussion about politics, it's just not relevant. Yes, I know that the media is compelled to talk about women's clothes and appearance as if it's all we should be thinking about, but I expect better, especially when the politicians themselves are criticising this approach.

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