Deeds, not words
Posted on May 17, 2010
As I’m sure most of you are well aware by now, this General Election has been a complete and utter disaster as far as women’s political representation is concerned.
Don’t worry though, I’m not about to rehash all the arguments as to why and how that is, not when so many columnists and bloggers have already covered that ground. Just have a read of these excellent pieces if you want a bit more of the background to the issue:
Katharine Viner: A new kind of politics? With a top table looking like that?
Jenni Russell: The election’s biggest loser is us, ladies
Kira Cochrane: How can we get more women into top political jobs?
Joan Smith: In the studio, in the House…where are all the women?
Centre for Women and Democracy: ‘Derisory’ increase in number of women MPs
Suffice to say I agree with all of them: I agree that the situation is dire; I agree that a two and half per cent increase in the number of women MPs this time around is derisory; I agree that having only four women in the Cabinet is a disgrace, and I agree that the way women have been either ignored or trivialised by the media and the various political parties throughout the campaign has been nothing short of shameful.
My big question now though is: what the fuck are we going to do about it?
And I mean that in all seriousness.
Because I’ve reached a point now where I really don’t think simply sounding off and complaining about all this is enough. And I don’t think “watching closely” to see when and where our political masters are going to shaft us next, as the Fawcett Society appears to be doing, is enough either.
I want to know how much longer we’re going to put up with this for.
Because I don’t know about you, but I’ve just about had it with listening calmly and politely to people (mainly men) as they pat us on the heads and tell us it doesn’t matter that there are so few women in Parliament. I’ve just about had it with holding it all together while being told that it’s the standard of our MPs that matters, not their gender, or their race, or their sexual orientation. I’ve just about had it with all of this shit, and I’ve especially had it with hearing about how it would be insulting to women if quotas or other positive action measures were brought in to increase the numbers, because you know, women should be getting there on merit not because of some PC gawn mad tokenism. Yeah right, as if all those privileged privately educated white boys didn’t have any extra help making it to the top, like the old-school tie and mummy and daddy’s connections. Pull the other one please, it’s got silver fucking spoons on it.
No, quotas aren’t insulting, but do you know what is?
Being made to feel like you’re invisible is insulting. Being made to feel like a second-class citizen, like a non-person. Being made to feel like you don’t count, that’s insulting.
And that’s precisely how many women up and down the UK feel today.
So, the question is, what are our next steps? Where do we go from here?
Well you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been giving this some thought over the past few days (in between bouts of yelling abuse at the telly and banging my forehead on my keyboard in a comfortingly rhythmic fashion). In fact I was sitting in a pub the other day waiting for some friends to arrive, and in a bid not to look to others like a desperate loser who’d been stood up, I got out my trusty notebook and did this kind of stream of consciousness thing about the whole issue. And here’s what I came up with:
1. Is it time for a UK women’s party?
I started out thinking this was one of the best ideas in the world, ever. But now I’ve looked into it a bit further I’m inclined to think that actually it’s a bit crap. Obviously I’ve taken the idea from the Swedish feminist party, Feminist Initiative, which although it hasn’t managed to win any seats yet, has seen a marked increase in support over the last few years.
My problem with the idea of a specifically feminist party though is that under our current electoral system (which looks like being around for a good few years yet, now that Clegg et al have sold out on PR) small emerging parties like this end up simply splitting the left vote even further, and thus they help the right get into power.
Also, and this may be somewhat controversial coming from me, what with me being a leftie feminist and all, my beef in this instance isn’t so much that we don’t have enough feminists in Parliament (although trust me, that is a massive issue, but it’s not what this post is about), it’s that we don’t have enough women in Parliament, and that’s women on all sides of the political divide.
The fact is that if we’re going to campaign to have more women in positions of power and influence (and that’s what I think we should be doing), then we’re going to have to accept that some of those women may well turn out to be our political opponents: we’re going to have to accept that some of them may well even represent views that we find abhorrent. So setting up a women’s party in that context just wouldn’t work, because we’d never be able to reach agreement on anything. Ever.
My other problem with a women-only party is that just as Feminist Initiative started out as a pressure group, I suspect that that’s how this one would be received, especially in the beginning. And personally I think we have enough of those. Plus, and let’s be frank here, women shouldn’t have to be a fucking pressure group. Because we’re not a minority. Our interests are not minority interests, or specialist niche interests, they’re the interests of all; and in particular they’re the interests of 51% of the population. And actually, I make 51% a majority.
2. Is it time to insist on more positive action measures, ie all-women shortlists?
In a word, yes.
3. How about a bit of direct action?
And this is where I have to be really careful about what I say….
Okay, my answer to this one is yes, absolutely. In fact this is my favoured choice.
We’ve had umpteen years of debates and meetings and task forces, and of going endlessly over and over the same old ground. We’ve even got organisations dedicated to trying to increase the numbers of women in politics.
But guess what? Despite all of this, we’re still no further forwards, we’re not making any progress. In fact, more and more it’s beginning to feel as if we’re actually going backwards.
So I think it’s time to stop playing nice. I think it’s time we stopped asking ever so politely for a couple of seats at the table. I think it’s time instead for us to start making demands.
Just like our fore-mothers did. Remember them?
4. Deeds, not words
Finally, I think it’s all very well for a bunch of us to be gobbing off on the Internet and elsewhere about the injustice of it all, but isn’t it time some of us put our money where our mouths are and actually stood for election ourselves, like the journalist Suzanne Moore did at this election? Or are we just a bunch of armchair warriors, happy to sit and snipe from the sidelines, but unwilling to actually put in the work necessary to help effect the change we want to see? (and yes, I include myself in this as well).
Deeds, not words, that was the motto of the WSPU. Personally, I think it was a great one.
I would be prepared to back someone who stood on various ‘women’s’ issues.
I think one of the main problems still is the fact that women have to leave the career race while they have families. Get the world to the point where good childcare is free and you’ll have an entirely different picture. There’s a horrible lack of female representation at the top of most professions – journalism, politics, the boardroom – wherever. It’s not a lack of interest or ability – it’s the compromises we have to make along the way.
Let’s see free creches and childminding – we’ll get some results then. I’d back a candidate who backed that.
Thanks for this Cath. Your thoughts very much echo my own. Immediately following the election results I was overwhelmed by enthusiasm to stand for election; absolutely convinced that I could and would do a far better job than the pale male and stale Tory MP I have had since the mid 1980’s.
I feel considerably less enthusiastic about standing now – but also I know, we won’t change anything unless women do stand, and stand in great number.
Women only short lists should be brought in, but also the process of selection needs to be amended. Currently those that are selected are the ones that have ‘time served’ and these are more likely to be men. And hustings is not necessarily the best way of choosing or judging the capabilities of a future MP.
I have always considered myself to be political; but its only now, with my child caring days in the distant past, that I have the emotional and physical space to consider a more active political involvement.
See you in the HoC?
Completely agree with all of that. BUT also agree with Hangbitch’s point that a lot of it comes down to the childcare issue (and I’d add to that, the fact that it’s so hard for most couples to both work part-time – something which I think a lot of families would find was the most balanced option, but it’s simply not available for the majority of people).
Thing is though, is standing for election on an individual basis enough? The start of your post seems to focus on the systemic inequality, whereas the latter half focusses on incremental change. I think that the first half is closer to what’s needed – a holistic, co-ordinated, campaigning approach that puts pressure on the existing political parties. That’s the kind of thing that the Fawcett Society should be doing …
the people who complain about all women shortlists don’t seem to have a problem with all white male shortlists. and this idea that george osbourne for e.g. is chancellor on merit – as you say, pull the other one.
yes – direct action! lets do it!
I stood for election, as did lots of other Lib Dem ladies. Not enough people voted for us. Positive discrimination will not force the electorate to choose us. A woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half as much credit is still a truism, and until that changes, no amount of fixing the system will get more women elected.
I certainly agree and am up for meeting up with others to strategize.
There are lots of women who are angry and urgently talking. And I agree that now is the time for action.
I might (not quite clear where you are on this) have a somewhat different take on this. Having been part of the 1960/70’s movement as a left feminist, I then thought and now think even more emphatically that part of the problem here in the UK was the sectarianism and antipathy to institutionalising. I think we do need more women (careerist, in banks, etc) in powerful positions across the board and need to try to find some very broad agreement to support women.
I have begun to collect together analyses of this women-free politics in a delicious account. Happy to receive and share.
It might be useful for there to be ‘alerts’ about posts that people should respond to on blogs as well. But agree these are just words unless they are part of a strategy for action.
We need to challenge yet engage with (sometimes with anger and contempt, sometimes with sorrow) the people who should be our friends but who perpetuate distortions and use sexist or misogynist stereotypes. For example, Jean Seaton in the latest Prospect perpetuates the myth of the man-hating feminists of the 70s (feminism was not her political choice then and she made no effort to engage). George Monbiot used almost all of the misogynist images in the toy cupboard in his rant against Labour in the Guardian etc.
Happy to hear and share ideas.
Anyone got any suggestions for direct action? Its becoming more appealing by the minute.
Yes, I have msvirago, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about them here….
What we need is a meeting. But not a talking shop meeting, a strategising meeting as per Elaine’s suggestion….
Jennie, no, of course we can’t force the electorate to vote for us, but if there had been as many constituencies with only women to choose from on the ballot forms as there were where voters had only men to choose from, we’d have seen a lot more women elected.
Re No 1 option, there is something pretty close to a women’s party in the UK already – the Green Party, with a female leader, Caroline Lucas MP, and three of the five most senior elected people being women (Jean Lambert MEP and Jenny Jones, MLA).
And a policy of wanting 40% women on boards on the Norwegian model, so not afraid of quotas.
And also not afraid of direct action…
@ Natalie Bennett
Have the Greens changed their policy position on prostitution yet? Until they support tackling demand and view prostitution as violence against women – they really cant be viewed as women friendly IMHO
Well – contact me Cath, but I am not up for drawing lines in the sand, deciding who is/is not the ‘real’ feminist.
At this stage, I am just interested in challenging “friends” to stop being anti-feminist, challenging the myths re positive discrimination, and thinking about how to reach across all lines of difference amongst women to encourage and establish women’s power in the public sphere.
Another quick point – as I Tweeted during the election, I think that the media plays a substantial role in putting women off public life in general, and politics in particular. You just have to look at the pasting that’s handed out to women of all parties (and the ‘wives’ (yuk) ) to see why more women don’t put themselves in the firing line. Unfortunately I have no idea how this could be tackled / challenged / highlighted, but would be interested to hear others’ views …
Good article, Cath, and very timely. We do need more women in Parliament although my preference is for the increase to be made up of women who identify with feminist causes. I think this will always be a dream as the alternative throws up a dilemma. Would you be indirectly helping the election of a right wing woman who may be homophobic and racist simply because she is a woman or should you support a man who is neither and is more progressive on feminist issues?
When I was younger, I was actively involved in the campaign to introduce reserved seats for women and black members in trade unions. I am proud of the work that I did then which contributed to my own union being one of the first to introduce reserved seats for black members although we failed to secure them for women as it was argued that women already held seats on the NEC but Black people did not. At the time, our victory was viewed as historic and we all thought it would lead to many changes elsewhere. Alas this was not to be. Mainly because the people elected thereafter did not necessarily identify with what we called the “Black agenda” preferring instead to join factional groups and promote themselves rather then the collective move for equality that had put them there in the first place.
I am not keen to replace the blue eyed boys with the blue eyed girls. And will the blue eyed girls be prepared to share power with Black women allowing more of us to be represented? Many of the women that I come in contact with over the years are more interested in securing equality at home and work than see more women in Parliament. For them the issues are likely to be domestic and sexual violence, access to legal aid, equal pay, sexual harassment, honour crimes and the list goes on.
Entering politics does not interest them. The long hours, the shannigans involved in wheeling and dealing, the macho culture etc. puts them off as does the idea of having to belong to a political party that does not share their agenda even though this may be their only option if they are serious about securing a seat.
Sorry I have gone on longer than intended. Basically, we do need direct action to secure a greater voice and power for women in Parliament. Question is: do we do this through standing for Parliament ourselves or do we do it through other means and tactics?
ps. msvirago, you would get my vote!
i agree kate – i think this is part of the problem. look at the hatred that gets directed at harriet harman when she stands up for women’s policies. or jackie smith (not perfect either of them i know). the vitriolic and patronising attitude towards women politicians is diabolical. they’re either ‘ugly man haters’ or ‘pretty and therefore only popular for their looks’. it’s disgraceful.
i would be up for direct action. but as i live in bristol perhaps i could help from afar?
Surely Cath your self promoting article is exactly the explanation as to why women are no longer able to come together to find areas of common interest on which to organise.
For instance most of what you have written here is cobbled to together from contributions to a new facebook group* set up to discuss just these issues. But what do you do?
Lurk on that list and then when convenient write an article that is as much about, if not more about, promoting yourself rather than the issues.
So no so long as there are internet parasites like yourself we wont get anywhere no one will discuss anything, in the same way as competition for funding has stopped women’s groups from taking joint action.
But then aren’t you the blogger whose only contribution to possibly what could have been the start of a new shared point of demonstrating – MWR – just took the opportunity to vent your spleen against your old enemies (WfH) rather than help promote a newly emerging shared politics.
So long as prima donnas like yourself will only move to do anything so long as you are identified as being the prime mover nothing will happen.
So next time you pass of others work as your own, please listen out for the sound of other women puking in the background.
Less CiF feminism.
One thing is clear, with posts like this, and the ludicrous “activists” portrayed by the BBC, current feminist politics is as deep as women getting a facelift to secure their next photo opp in Heat magazine.
(* I’ve lost the link – sorry – but it was a follow up to the Women’s Agenda survey by Women in London)
Grace, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. If there’s a Facebook group discussing this I’ll be happy to join it if you post the link, but I’ve certainly not been lurking anywhere near it I can assure you.
As for me wanting to be a prime mover. No thanks, I’m not interested. All I’m doing here is putting forward some suggestions, I’m more than happy to to work with whoever wants to take any of these ideas forward, or indeed with anyone who’s already got any of this off the ground, but I certainly don’t intend to be putting myself forward as some kind of self-styled leader or any of that old bollocks.
Everywhere I turn women are talking about this issue. No one ‘owns’ it or has the single ‘truth.’
I am making contact with a lot of different women, in whatever context is available.
I do not do politics by ‘pay grade’ – so am offering to do whatever it takes to get a constructive discussion and strategy going.
I respect what I have seen of Cath’s contributions, so thought I would link up with her blog as well.
Kate and Pakeezah– some really good ideas there. If you are going to stay on this thread, I would really enjoy a conversation. But if not, let me know where these discussions are going.
Pakeezah: I am active in US politics abroad and we have had interesting discussions about what might be called the “Condi Rice” issue/test.
I dont think it is just competition for funding that has stopped women’s groups from taking joint action although I do agree that this has played a part. Vested interests, self promotion and other unsisterly behaviour have created obstacles to the establishment of a united strong campaigning womens sector capable of working together for real change. Indeed, one of the main challenges we face is how we overcome these issues. Its my belief that if we did, we would be taken very seriously.
Elaine – I agree we need more constructive debate and a strategy that will work. I applaud Cath for getting the discussion going here. I am not on facebook and am not aware of discussions around these issues happening elsewhere.
Perhaps a good start might be to suggest that a second tier women’s organisation help organise a meeting to discuss the outcome of the election and related issues such as how we can ensure that our concerns are no longer ignored in the political sphere.
I would love to know more about the discussions you had re the “Condi Rice issue/test”. Sounds very interesting.
Sorry Cath either you are suffering from memory loss or someone is impersonating you on facebook. I have just sent you a message from a link to you as you are listed as being a member of the Women’s Agenda facebook group – http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=116843805001512&v=wall
I think that specifically the hidden networks of women who have used their friendship networks and connections with Labour women need to face up to the damage them have done to feminism as an inclusive and welcoming platform in which to engage with women across generations, race, class an sexual identity.
For instance, and I am not trying to say Cath as I don’t know you, that you are worse than anyone else, but seriously, colluding with for instance the appalling manipulation of the EAVES stage managed “debate” on women and the election. Did you not feel the slightest twinge of guilt in being one of the first to have a question put to the panel after thegrossly patronising gesture of the first question going to a young woman on behalf of her school.
I think the damage done by the hidden networks, the distortion of women’s priorities by the Labour engineering of women’s issues has meant that unless and until all those women pontificating about what feminism is stop acting to promote their profile and start working directly with other women we wont get anywhere.
And sorry to carry on as some Cassandra but ask a second tier?!!! This outposts of the new colonialism who have helped commandeer and demean autonomouns women’s groups into being the foot soldiers of the top down patronising male left. Give me a break …
But more imporatantly when did we loose the ability to act together without having someone organise us.
Its hard to believe that women without funding had local women’s centres, sent out newsletters, organised workshops and conferences. And all without a leader or a high profile journalist telling them what to do or think.
Internet feminism seems to have turned women into permenant onlookers.
(PS just to show I am not totally pessimistic I have started a new thread on the women’s agenda facebook to see if it is possible for women to come together to pressure the ConDem coalition to live up to both the Tory and LibDem promise of 15 new rape crisis centres. (Unlike of course Labour whose contempt for autonomous feminism meant they ony committed to SARCs)
Oh blimey, now I’ve looked you’re absolutely right Grace, it appears I am a member of that group. No, it’s neither memory loss nor someone impersonating me, it’s me just doing what I do and accepting friends’ invites to join interesting sounding Facebook groups and then taking no part in them. My apologies.
I was thinking last night about your comment though, and I do think Elaine hit the nail on the head when she said that women everywhere are talking about this. For instance I noticed that a few hours after this post had gone up Yvonne Roberts had written about the same thing for CiF, and had even used the same WSPU quote “Deeds, not words”. But do I think she copied the idea from this blog? No, I don’t. I just think it shows that at the moment there are a lot of us thinking along the same lines.
And no, I didn’t feel guilt re asking the question at the Eaves event. I felt it was an important question – surely what was important was that we got answers from the politicians about the issues that matter to women, not who got to ask the questions?
If you don’t want second tier groups to help organise this, have you got any suggestions as to how we go about actually doing something? I mean I take your point re not needing anyone to lead or to organise us, but do you know of a space we can use for instance where we can get women together to thrash out some ideas? And do you have any networks you can tap into of women who might want to be involved?
Oh, and I meant to say, agree with you re Labour and SARCs. I thought it was shameful that both the LibDem and the Tory manifestos specifically mentioned Rape Crisis, while Labour’s only talked about funding for SARCs.
Am not ignoring discussion here, but not able to reply for a few days.
Just to let you know that I am following this with interest.
I have been thinking about your comments on this blog for a couple of days now and feel I can’t just ignore them.
Your rudeness to Cath Elliott is, in my view, unacceptable and really highlights why you may be struggling to find women to campaign and work with. You state you don’t know Cath personally but then proceed to accuse her of plagiarism; collusion; self promotion; being an internet parasite and a prima donna.
It seems to me that the women’s movement and feminism is really in trouble if we are to rely on women like yourself who understand nothing about solidarity or supporting sisters. Disagreement and conflict are part of how we will find common ground and move forward, but disagreement and debate does not require insults or condemnation. I urge you to consider that our host for these discussions is Cath, it is her house you are visiting, be polite.
I would also like to hear your suggestions, Grace. 🙂
I found this post inspiring.
I can see that my suggestion of involving a second tier women’s organsation to facilitate a meeting has not met with universal approval.
Which is fair enough because that is what debate is about. However, to describe these bastions of women’s activism (tongue firmly in cheek) as “outposts of the new colonialism who have helped commandeer and demean autonomouns women’s groups into being the foot soldiers of the top down patronising male left” is based on what evidence?
Such sweeping and simplistic generalisations based on sod all evidence belie the fact that grassroots campaigns like MWR happily work with them to deliver the biggest demonstrations of women seen in the UK since the suffragettes and what’s more, not a “top down patronising male leftie” in sight.
I have worked with some well respected second tier Black women’s groups who would be very offended by your description of them. Or weren’t you including them?
As far as I know, nobody has a monopoly on good ideas so I am looking forward to hearing Grace’s suggestions with more than a little interest.
Glad to hear that you are not “totally pessimistic” though. Good to see that you also have a sense of humour It did make me laugh to read that you think that internet feminism is making women become permanent onlookers followed by your intention to start a thread (on the internet) to see if women can come together to put pressure on the Lib Cons!
Serious thought though. Do you think internet discussions attract a wide enough diversity of women’s views from different backgrounds or is there a risk that they just reflect the views of the status quo?