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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What does a feminist look like?

If I asked you to name a prominent feminist, I imagine that almost all of you would plum for Germaine Greer.

Greer has contributed to the collection of essays recently published as Making the Difference, in honour of Shirley Williams. Given conference’s decision just over a week ago to opt for a complex quota system for approved candidates in order to boost the number of female MPs, Greer’s insights and criticisms are not only typically articulate and convincing – they are also very timely.

In her essay, entitled “Woman in Parliament”, she examines the careers of Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams before turning to the matter of all women shortlists and what she considers counter-productive quota systems. I could provide a critical review of the essay, but I won’t: instead I’ll let Germaine Greer herself speak to you directly in her own words:

Some women candidates groan that we don’t have a Hillary Clinton. What the example of Hillary Clinton teaches us is that the best way to get ahead in US politics is to marry a man who gets himself elected president...

...Castle and Williams would have wanted to see more women among their colleagues, [but] it would never have occurred to them to demand all-women shortlists for pre-selection. Women who have fought their way up through the ranks, competing with equally driven men and worsting them by sheer ability, are unlikely to advocate the kind of affirmative action that would install an arbitrary number of women... Ann Widdecombe was characteristically forthright, dubbing them “an insult to women” Lynne Featherstone rejects all-women shortlist as a solution: “We believe local people should decide on their choice of candidates and intervention from the centre isn’t welcome. You can’t just drop people in.”

...Castle and Williams were aware exactly how much better a woman had to perform than a man if she was to be given a top job. They had both seen men of far less ability promoted to positions above them, but they also knew that if women were to survive in adversarial politics they had to have considerable skill, real hunger and extraordinary powers of endurance. Simply to give an arbitray number of women what other men and women had had to fight for could not produce a governing class that knew what it was doing, or how and why...

...The introduction by the Labour Party of all-women shortlists in 1995 was part of the process of “modernisation”...a particularly underhand way of disenfranchising the left. Cultivating a generation of neophytes would not only bring a “better class of totty” into the House, it would also sideline the party’s female left wing...Other parties talked of training more women in the techniques of electoral government, in organisation, canvassing, formulating policy, networking and so forth, so that they acquired the skills to work their way up from constituency party level. The women meanwhile went on stuffing envelopes and making tea...

...The plastering of the Commons with inexperienced and ill-prepared women was the worst kind of gesture politics, and the principal sufferers in the event were the women themselves... Pressure to include women and members of ethnic minorities in the Commons is usually justified by the perception of a need to make parliament “more representative” of Britain’s cultural diversity. The underlying assumption is that parliamentarians have all sprung up from the grassroots. They are more likely to have been drawn into parliamentary politics by what used to be called the “old boys’ network”... we should not be surprised that a fairly high proportion of the female intake was connected to the old intake in one way or another. Of the women selected from the shortlists, Maria Eagle is the twin sister of Angela Eagle MP, Ann Keen is married to Alan Keen MP, , Ann Cryer is the widow of one MP and the mother of another; Julie Morgan is the wife of the MP for Cardiff West; Dari Taylor is the daughter of a former MP for Burnley. And so on. Nothing about this is surprising. Women who are already familiar with the parliamentary regime have an advantage...

...The effect of all-women shortlists was not to encourage more women to enter the political fray, but to discourage them from seeking selection without them... They were far less effective than hoped. If the immediate effect of introducing an inexperienced group of women to an intensely competitive masculine environment was to cause them grief and embarrassment, then it can be seen actually to have retarded the emergence of women and women’s issues into mainstream politics. ..
...Great historical changes cannot be made in a hurry; papering a female face onto a mosogynistic House of Commons will be ultimately self-defeating. The process must start where it started for Barbara Castle, at school...only by starting at the beginning can we raise a generation of women who will have the skills, the motivation, the toughness and the stamina to reform an absurdly laddish House of Commons – and to enjoy doing it.


Greer is more concerned with changing the culture of British politics and the House of Commons in particular (you’ll have to buy the book to read the more detailed arguments in her essay). This emphasis, I think, is the right one. As she demonstrated aptly, the political elite remains firmly in place and AWSs simply allowed women with strong parliamentary connections the opportunity to move ahead of men with parliamentary connections. But nothing fundamental has changed.

Obviously, the Liberal Democrats are not proposing using the AWS. But, as I discussed last week, I find what is actually on the table to be almost as unhelpful in promoting women’s issues. There’s a great deal more to this than simply the raw statistics of female MPs, but all that has been forgotten in the rush for a quick fix. I can only imagine what Germaine Greer made of the motion presented to conference last week, but my view is that it was deeply flawed. It fails to get to grips with the real need to reform politics (if ever we needed a “new politics” it’s in relation to a more inclusive parliamentary culture) and essentially acts in a discriminatory way to create a new elite “brand” or “class” of candidate according to rigid quotas. Is that fair, or liberal? I think Lynne Featherstone got it right when she observed that “local people should decide on their choice of candidates and intervention from the centre isn’t welcome. You can’t just drop people in.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what was being proposed last week, with constituencies being forced to shortlist two candidates from the unfortunately named “Leadership Programme”.

I'm pleased I belong to a party which is supportive of feminism (with a small "f"). So what does a feminist look like? Like Germaine Greer? Like Jo Swinson? Like Lynne Featherstone? Like me? Maybe a bit like all of us? Perhaps, but surely at a basic level a feminist is someone who promotes the interests of women - someone who cares deeply about women's issues and creating a society where gender differences become irrelevant - not simply someone who backs a tokenistic approach to "inclusivity". I’ve yet to find a feminist of note who has lent her support to the (admittedly compromised) motion passed at conference last week. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I know that arbitrary targets do women a huge disservice and that if as much attention was given over to creating a more inclusive parliament than it was to discussing targets and quotas some genuine progress might actually be made. The lesson we’ve learned from Labour’s experience is that positive discrimination doesn’t work and has unintended effect of actually reinforcing privilege rather than actually making parliament more genuinely diverse. This isn’t what we want, is it?

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