Signing off…for a while

As I’m sure is apparent to readers of this blog, I haven’t posted for over a month. I could honestly say that it is because I don’t have time, but the deeper reason is that I have a new job. A politically neutral job.

In fact, my old job was also politically neutral, but somehow this feels different. I know I’ve kept my identity at arms length by concealing my surname (and yes, Clara is actually on my birth certificate in black and white), yet this no longer feels sufficient. Because of this. I’m laying this blog down for a while.

Thank you for reading, and if you meet those who refuse to believe some feminists vote Tory, send them my way.

Clara X

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Women’s History Month

March, it seems, is Women’s History Month. Here’s to female role models…

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Open Democracy

I have an interesting exchange with someone called Zoe Stavri on Open Democracy.  Essentially, she believes that Tories can’t be feminists.  I argue that I am one.  Some of the comments are enlightening, and by that I don’t mean that a) they like me, or b) they’re right.

I’m not a feminist because I’m a Tory, nor did I vote Conservative because I’m a feminist.  But I do see the equality of individuals wrapped up in individual choice.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t work collectively, but that we should recognise that not all women are the same and that we may have slightly different needs.  I’m not arguing against collective action, but against a) philosophical essentialism, and b) the over-use of frequently clumsy legislation.

Much of the discussion is about deeper philosophical interpretations.  I make no secret of my belief that both the natural world and humanity are violent and selfish, and that utopia is impossible.  I believe this because I reject the notion of absolutes, moral or otherwise.  This isn’t a comfortable philosophical position, but it is a coherent one.  And so I am pragmatic rather than idealistic, looking at what might actually help here and now.  In a world of predator and prey, I know I’m the prey and I know there will always be predators — and I’m seeking a workable day-to-day solution.

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We don’t have to choose between shoes and sense

(This post was first published at Platform 10 on 2 February 2012.)

On Wednesday, 1 February, the APPG for Women in Parliament held a panel discussion on the way that female politicians were portrayed in the media.  The Guardian reported this as a damp squib, asserting that the conclusion of the debate was: “if you can’t stand the heat, just get your kitten-heels out of the kitchen”.

That’s a rather disingenuous interpretation.  Certainly, Janet Street-Porter (The Mail on Sunday) advocated that view.  But she also seemed to hold rather contradictory views; advocating “guerrilla tactics” at the start of the debate and legally-binding quotas for public appointments and elections at the end of the debate.

The “you deserve the coverage you get” attitude was also firmly held by Anne McElvoy (The Economist), who pointed out that politics is a business for peacocks.  Journalists look for things to write about, be it a woman’s cleavage or the Prime Minister’s bald spot.  Don’t wear ridiculous outfits, says Janet Street-Porter, referring to Caroline Flint’s various fashion choices.   The difficulty with that argument is that different people have different ideas about what a “ridiculous outfit” is.

The problem, of course, is that the clothes and the shoes and the “how does it feel to be a woman and an MP” questions overwhelm the rest of it.  Emma Reynolds recounts occasions when she expected to talk about a particular policy and all the press wanted to know was what how difficult it was to get elected.  Male politicians appear GQ and nobody blinks: Louise Mensch does it and it’s discussed as a feminist issue.  And yes, there is a disproportionate amount of coverage of Theresa May’s shoes.

If the panellists representing the media were asserting how the media is tough on everyone, the MPs asked how the lack of coverage of women and the lack of women in politics fed into one another.  On the Today Programme that morning Louise Mensch counted 22 men and four women, while Newsnight is ubiquitous in its maleness.  She wasn’t arguing for absolute parity, merely for more women’s voices to be heard.  The press is excluding women’s views when they could be benefiting from them.

Women have a different relationship with the media.  Sophy Ridge (Sky News) said that female MPs don’t push themselves forward, don’t phone up every week asking to be on TV (an unnamed male MP apparently does do this) and don’t want to speak on subjects they are less familiar with.  Sadly, this may be entirely logical behaviour, given the media’s tendency to either focus on women’s shoes or to deride them as airheads, but it provides no escape from the vicious cycle.  As Angie Bray said, those politicians who get to the top, like Theresa May, are firstly tough and secondly learn how to deal with the media.  No one in politics can decide to have nothing to do with the media.

Speaking from the audience, former MP Gillian Shephard (now Baroness Shephard) agreed that a tough skin was important.  It’s hardly fair to put every portrayal of women in the media down to the “if you wear those shoes then that’s all we’ll write about” attitude.  Women on television get held to a higher standard of appearance than their male counterparts, and women on the internet receive far more criticism.

Do female politicians all agree with each other on how to address this?  Of course not: they’re from different political parties.  Women don’t agree with each other simply because they’re women.  We want the brightest and the best women in Parliament, and we don’t want them turned off politics because of the portrayal of female politicians.  The under-representation of women in politics and the lack of coverage of women’s views in the press are intimately related.

And the best quote of the night?  As Janet Street-Porter loudly asserted that quotas were the only way to get more women into Parliament and at least half the panel and most of the audience raised their voices against her, someone at the back of the room shouted out: “ladders not quotas!”  That’s the debate the APPG should have next.

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Women in Parliament

The Guardian has a write-up on the All Party Parliamentary Group last night on women in the media.  It’s about 33% accurate — because the journalist has faithfully reported what two of the six panellists said, and completely ignored the other four.

The last four paragraphs are a case in point.  “No matter that the media’s laceration of women might have something to do with the fact that just 17% of David Cameron’s 121 ministers are women; that women make up just 15% of UK board members; or that contributions from women on Radio 4’s Today are so few and far between that, on any one day, listeners can go two hours without hearing a female voice.”  Amelia Hill, the author of the article, concludes that the APPG’s answer is “if you can’t stand the heat, just get your kitten-heels out of the kitchen”.

Except that that wasn’t what the APPG said.  That was what two of the three media representatives on the panel said.  That’s what Janet Street-Porter and Anne McElvoy said, while Louise Mensch MP, Angie Bray MP, Emma Reynolds MP and Sophy Ridge from Sky talked about the lack of media coverage for women.

What the three MPs (two Conservative and one Labour) said was that women were marginalised by the media.  They talked about the disproportionate amount of coverage given to Theresa May’s shoes, and how the media should take women more seriously.  I’m writing a longer piece for Platform Ten, so look out for that tomorrow.

Normally, I quite like the Guardian. (I buy the Saturday Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph — it gives me a balanced view.)  But in this case, they are straight out wrong.  I was there, I heard the MPs speak.  The Guardian is failing to listen.

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The problems Tory feminists face?

Suzanne Moore has taken issue* with Louise Mensch’s article (see yesterday’s blog post).  I don’t agree with all of Ms Moore’s arguments.

Firstly, Ms Mensch is not “rebranding feminism in her own image”, but writing about how she approaches feminism.  Tory feminism is no more Louise-feminism than it is Clara-feminism.  We all have our own individual perspective.

Secondly, some women don’t see themselves as victims because they aren’t victims.  Yes, as you point out, some women are beaten and abused.  But while I sympathise with these women wholeheartedly as human beings, I don’t think I have any special connection to them simply because we share an x-chromosome.  People do terrible things to other people, and women are statistically more likely to suffer.  I recognise the collective nature of discrimination, but it is because discrimination is collective that a collective fightback fails.  Collective politics pits one side against another, entrenching and separating, feeding the cycle of distrust and misunderstanding.  The pragmatic response to collective discrimination is to demonstrate that discrimination is ridiculous because we are individuals.

Thirdly, being reluctant to ban something does not mean supporting it.  Ms Moore says that “if everything is left to a deregulated market, then everybody is up for sale”.  Not quite: if everything is left to a deregulated market then it is up to society to say what is up for sale.  Tory feminism knows the problem of female representation in the media – but they want to use society and public opinion to change it, not legislation.

(* While I disagree with much of Ms Moore’s article, this is likely to be due to ideological approaches, and she certainly writes a coherent and measured response to Ms Mensch. Here is an example of a response which is neither coherent nor measured.)

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Louise Mensch

Louise Mensch’s article yesterday hammered home a couple of vital points: that Tory feminism is holistic, and that Tory feminism is about equality of opportunity.

Tory feminism looks at women as people, not as a homogeneous sisterhood.  We’re not all the same. Women vary in their needs as much as men.  Yes, discrimination is collective, but that doesn’t mean our approach has to be.  In fact, Tory feminism challenges discrimination on the very grounds that it IS collective and the world is made up of individuals.

Posted in Definitions, Women in Parliament | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment