The Guardian, Louise Mensch and ‘Tory feminism’: burning the padded bras
This is a guest post by regular Graunwatch reader redpesto:
Like Suzanne Moore, I haven’t read Metrosexy (yet…). Unlike QRG, I’ve a bit more time for her, or at least I have done in the past. But ever since she’s returned to the Guardian from writing for the Daily Mail I’ve repeatedly wondered whether, like Buffy, she ‘came back wrong’, and that the Guardian’s take on gender issues has possibly ‘jumped the shark’. Moore’s latest column on ‘Tory feminism’ is a case in point. QRG’s already looked at it for its lack of analysis of men, but I want to pick up something else (as I suggested in the comments.)
The concept of ‘Tory feminism’, encapsulated in the form of ubiquitous backbench MP Louise Mensch, was always going to be difficult for the Guardian to respond to. Not because feminism ‘belongs to’ the left, but rather because of the whole concept of feminism as a ‘broad church’ (yes, yes, I know, QRG, but bear with me). It was always going to look silly if other women were ruled out from being feminists – even though that’s exactly what has happened to lesbians and sex workers in the past. The response in the paper to the release of Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady was revealing: caught between acknowledging her achievement as Britain’s first female Prime Minister and denouncing her for not being a ‘real feminist’ (whatever that is these days) or for not doing enough for other women (Bidisha simultaneously wants to let Thatcher have it with both rhetorical barrels and yet still find a way of blaming the patriarchy).
The mean part of me wants to laugh. Not because I hate feminism (sorry, QRG), but because Tory Feminism calls ‘mainstream’ feminism’s bluff, just as Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential nomination threw down the gauntlet to those women who wanted a woman – any woman – for US President. I’ve posted here and (under another username) at the Guardian about how simply celebrating more women ‘making it’ in a male-dominated world as a ‘feminist’ achievement was never going to be sufficient. Weight of numbers is not an ideology. ‘Tory feminism’ forces – or should force – a much better analysis by way of response.
I’m not getting my hopes up, though. Moore might state that ‘I don’t want to burst your bubble but women, like men, are all different,’ but so much of the rhetoric in the paper (see Jane Martinson’s posts on the Women’s Blog) relies on ‘women’ as one big homogenous category in contrast to ‘men’ (the basic principle of both radical and ‘vulgar’ feminism), as in ‘women’ versus ‘The Coalition.’ The chief attribute of The Coalition, therefore, is apparently not its ideology but rather its gender composition. The Coalition is evil because it’s full of men, not because it’s full of Tories. Somehow ‘more women’ is meant to transform it into something more feminist, or at least more progressive; a common argument for the Guardian where ‘diversity’ keeps being confused with a gender balance which could easily be 100% white or where right-wing women never make up the numbers of women in the media or politics or elsewhere.
It’s the same with Leveson. As I said in the comments to this Graunwatch article:
‘Despite all the work of the Guardian in breaking the story, despite the presence of the Dowler and McCann families at the inquiry, despite the fact that News International was pretty indiscriminate about whose phones they hacked, Leveson should really be all about the women. Feminism’s one-club golfers strike again.’
Moore’s argument that ‘This is but a side-issue for Leveson, one of many, for why did he not discuss “sexism” with male editors or with Richard Desmond, whose media business is founded on porn?’ can only be answered with ‘because it wasn’t in the remit,’ even though some keep thinking either that it is or that ‘more women’ would ensure that it was.
Mensch’s role in all this is significant as she was on the Commons’ select committee looking at News International and the phone hacking scandal, had a big media moment when she left a sitting early, ostensibly to collect her kids (leading to accusations of ‘grandstanding’ about being a working mother), and has been caught up in ‘media sexism’ rows even as she received plenty of ‘savvy’ publicity via a fashion shoot and interview in GQ. The Guardian (or at least Jane Martinson) can’t make up its mind whether to campaign for her or hate her, because it’s trapped between cheering for women because they’re women and the belated recognition that some of those women don’t really share any of the paper’s politics.
Mensch also wrote a sneering, provocative article for Comment Is Free crowing about ‘Tory feminism’ in contrast to its sad (Labour-ish) counterpart. Moore notes that:
‘It’s all cool except don’t mention the C-word. Class. Or that downer thing, victims. Some women don’t see themselves as victims. They are victims. They are beaten and abused, they don’t vote and gasp (!) don’t have their own small businesses. Sometimes collective politics means simply looking out for the weakest rather than pushing oneself up to bellow with the strongest.’
Yet this is the only mention of ‘class’ in the entire article. I’m not surprised: feminism divorced from anything resembling socialism decades ago. The oft-repeated claim that ‘women are disproportionately affected by the cuts’ failed to differentiate between richer and poorer women. Poor men became invisible or irrelevant. A lack of focus on economic inequalities between classes leaves feminism either focusing on those between ‘men’ and ‘women’ or seeking a focus on anything rather than economics – hence the emphasis on domestic and sexual violence and moral panic about ‘sexualisation’ that takes up the remainder of Moore’s article, as in this passage:
‘This is uncomfortable territory for the Tories because if everything is left to a deregulated market, then everybody is up for sale. This hypersexualised culture is not new, but its means of transmission are. What initially drove the Suffragettes was widespread prostitution and venereal disease. This was the price poor women paid to uphold “Victorian values”. The early suffrage movement wanted to protect women as well as give them a modicum of power. Emmeline Pankhurst joined the Tories herself, many years after women had been given the vote.’
But this is equally ‘uncomfortable territory’ for feminists, since the Tories are perfectly capable of both (hypocritically) co-opting feminism and also allowing the market to let rip – as long as other, poorer women (and men) get it in the neck. The Tories can appeal less to feminists concerned about ‘hypersexualised images’ and more to the sexually conservative streak in both movements that seeks to police other people’s sexual behaviour or choices rather than manifestations of popular culture. It’s what happened in the US under Reagan with the Meese Commission in the 1980s. It’s why Mensch approved of SlutWalks yet objected to what she termed ‘promiscuity’, while Gail Dines simply objected to SlutWalks.
If feminism really is about the right to self-determination over one’s body, the argument isn’t just about reproductive rights, but also other areas such as non-monogamy, sex work, porn and BDSM – all of which some feminist ‘prefects’ have objected to other women doing. Back in the nineteenth-century it was ‘social purity’ feminism; now it’s Object asking for Loaded to be sold all of three feet higher in newsagents, because they’re not honest enough to just demand a ban. That fact that everybody could still end up ‘for sale’ in a world without hypersexualised images of women (rather than men) that feminists object to (and I say this as someone who’s no fan of ‘Page 3′ of the Sun) seems to be less of an issue.
In this respect, austerity is not ‘stripping us down to very old gender roles, despite the efforts of a few vibrant women MPs such as Mensch.’ First, because austerity is about stripping poorer people down in terms of wealth: remember, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Second, because Mensch is what happens when gender trumps class and when ‘class’ is used only in reference to women, if it is used at all. ‘Tory feminists’ aren’t ‘fake’: they are merely in favour of women like themselves as well as every policy of The Coalition that doesn’t threaten their economic, class, party or personal interests. Ignoring that is what happens when biology trumps ideology. Or it’s what happens when a very vocal strand of feminism conflates sexism with sex, to the detriment of everything else. I worry that somewhere along the line Moore has lost a sense of interconnection in favour of a much more simplistic analysis, as has the Guardian’s coverage of gender and sexuality issues as a whole. I’m hoping I’ll be proved wrong.