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Tory feminists do exist – but they offer only cheap wins and bad faith

Zoe Williams
The Guardian
Justine Greening and Maria Miller on a March4Women in London, 4 March. Photograph: Johnny Armstead/REX/Shutterstock

I distinctly remember (read: Googled) what Harriet Harman used to think about being a Conservative and a feminist: she said it was impossible. Now, she points to “a dramatic change in the nature of Conservative women MPs … These MPs are more modern, and people that we, as Labour women, can work cross-party with.” She singled out Sarah Wollaston (cool voice of reason on the NHS); Maria Miller (trenchant opponent of sexual harassment); Nicky Morgan (good on Brexit); and Justine Greening (who had concerns about Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students board, which unfortunately – because no man took up her point and repeated it more loudly – went unheeded). These women, five years ago, looked at best like Lib Dems in the wrong party, and now, in comparison with their male colleagues, they look amazing. In an ideal world, we would run the Conservative party like a netball match, and attach a scrappy, energetic woman who listened to reason to every blowhard man who didn’t. Austerity would still happen, we’d still have a housing crisis, social injustice would persist and in all likelihood we’d still sell arms to despotic regimes, citing the many valuable jobs they provide. But utterly pointless acts of national self-sabotage, built on lies by the solipsistic ambitions of the shameless and entitled, those could be blocked. The main problem with Tory women is not that they’re not feminist enough, it’s that there aren’t enough of them.

However, looking like a good person relative to Jacob Rees-Mogg is not yet enough to make you a feminist. Tories cannot truly be feminist, because their decisions impact women most. When you roll back the duties of the state, whether in paying its public-sector workers or providing social care or a safety net, the resultant burden falls disproportionately on women. When you close down domestic-violence refuges, it’s women who die. It is simply not possible to smother all this under a delightful quilt of strong words on sexual harassment or FGM. This is a classic 21st-century manoeuvre: to tilt in the direction of equality with political actions that don’t cost very much. It looks like it’s better than nothing, but it’s actually worse, since it borrows the garb of fairness and returns it sullied, smelling of bad faith.

However – and this is a major however – there is another, deeper, problem with feminism as this buoying, reassuring worldview we have all signed up to. Drawing up that litany of economic violence against women, I looked into how many of the 75,000 people with disabilities who had lost their adapted vehicles, and thereby their independence, in the latest round of benefits cuts were women. I couldn’t find out, because it’s a stupid question. There is no rational world in which you care about the female victims of benefits changes more than the male; no world in which child poverty counts as a “women’s issue”; no world in which “period poverty” – not being able to afford tampons – can be separated from “actual poverty” (not being able to afford beans). Gender equality, disaggregated from equality as a principle, is all “women on boards” and “slogan T-shirts”; hollow-hearted because it’s arbitrary.

Radical feminism versus socialist feminism was the hot-button division of the second wave, before everything fell out of favour, radicalism being a bit of a nuisance and socialism being so dated. Feminism then reappeared, alone, and anybody could be one. And that’s still true, in the sense that it’s great when we can all work together. But if you want internal coherence, “not a conservative” doesn’t quite cut it: you really need to be a socialist.

Matteo Salvini of Italy’s far-right Lega Nord. Photograph: Simona Chioccia/IPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Italy’s nationalists are scapegoating the nation itself

It turns out that we’re not the only electorate with a north-south divide. In Italy, it is even starker: the south is more or less entirely with the Five Star Movement (M5S), the north is has gone with Lega Nord (the North League). Some kind of coalition is inevitable, and on paper, straightforward. M5S and the League have a lot in common; they both locate the nation’s problems in a colourful, amorphous axis of the establishment and, for some elements, an influx of foreigners.

Sure, there’ll be areas of contention. The League wants to decriminalise brothels, but not those “messy brothels like in the past, or putting women behind a shop window,” said Matteo Salvini, the leader. This gives M5S a headache, because it loves mess. Explicitly established not as a party but as a loose collective aiming to destroy political parties, its members embrace chaos of all sorts. One of its core pledges was to repeal 400 laws in its first year of office, one of which is the legal duty to vaccinate your children. Nobody panic: it also has a plan to repeal the laws of the natural universe, so that’s one in the eye for science and its made-up diseases.

The two parties may well cohere into a relatively unified picture of nationalistic fervour, but this would be far from true nationalism. The North League was conceived as a regional force, to get away from the south. Salvini has conveniently buried these roots under enemies who are more convenient: the EU and the foreigner. Because what could be more politically uncomfortable than admitting what you really mean? I hate Puglians. I hate Neapolitans. I hate the establishment, by which I mean Rome. It happens elsewhere: I hate Westminster, by which I mean Londoners. I hate people from Hull. Or Charlottesville. Or New York. Populism, driven by recession, always ends up at scapegoating, and we assume that there is some deep-seated truth in there about closing ranks and rejecting the foreign. In fact, the foreigner is just a diversion, a piñata for a build-up of rage that started within the bosom of the family. It’s not nationalism. It’s nationphobia.

Public health messages effective? Fat chance

Obesity causes cancer. This is a public health announcement, you can see it on a bus stop. There’s a hypothesis here on which huge amounts of public policy have been built, but which is never tested: that people eat the wrong foods because they don’t know what is right, and remain obese because they don’t realise that it’s unhealthy. Public health messages cling with a religious fervour to this idea of an ignorant population that just needs more enthusiastic telling. If they took their own mechanistic, calories-in-calories-out approach, the agencies responsible might see that the messages in aren’t generating the results out. They might have to make some lifestyle changes, like thinking, or even listening.



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