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Blogs Coffee House

Joining Harriet Harman’s feminist club

22 July 2012

4:13 PM

22 July 2012

4:13 PM

If feminism is ‘a creed of women’s solidarity’, do you pick and choose about which women you’re in solidarity with? In the case of Harriet Harman, the answer is, well obviously. If you’re a Tory you can’t really join in the creed. In an interview with Total Politics magazine she was incredulous at the notion that the Home Secretary, Theresa May describes herself as a feminist. ‘If you’re actually political, you can’t be a Conservative and a feminist,’ she said. So there you have it.

But why? Because it’s ‘all about equality and fairness’. ‘Ultimately, delivering for women in this country – in equality, childcare, helping with the elderly, maternity pay and leave – is Labour’s mission, not the Tories.’ So that narrows the solidarity quite a bit, turning feminism into something less all-embracing, more statist. It’s about legislation – on maternity leave, say – and spending, on things like SureStart. It also takes us into territory like quotas – Harriet talks about cabinets being divided equally between the sexes – though this didn’t cut much ice when it came to her husband, Jack Dromey, being adopted for a Labour constituency that previously chose from an all-women shortlist. And if that’s your take on feminism, well, it is going to cut out Tories who prefer a small state to a big one.

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But it’s going to drive quite a few women nuts, this notion that some qualify when it comes to feminism, some don’t. It becomes a club for which you have to tick the boxes to join, like the ghastly Emily’s List, which helps women wanting to become MPs, but only if they’re not anti-abortion – a pro-life stance apparently disqualifying you as a paid-up woman.

I can’t say the can-I-join question bothers me personally – I don’t give a toss myself – but I think Harriet is missing the point here. If feminism is about equality, I’d say it’s also about women having access to political and economic power, and on their own terms. Ms May occupies a position of considerable influence by any reckoning; she’s part of a world where girls assume, as a matter of course, that they can play a role in any part of society, that their potential is unconstrained by gender.

Simply by virtue of occupying her role and doing it as well – or no more incompetently than her male peers – Ms May is doing more for feminism than if she spent as much of her time talking about it as Harriet Harman does. Actually, the new head of Yahoo, the engineer Marissa Mayer, has, I’d say, with her £37 million remuneration package over the next five years or so, done more for feminism than Ms H and Ms May combined.

Actually, for my money, the best feminist role model going, the woman you want girls to aspire to be, is the childless woman who doesn’t bang on about feminism and has probably never defined it, the one who wears dowdy trouser suits, has a husband who doesn’t even pretend to support her in the day job, doesn’t, like Mrs T., care less about being outnumbered and out-argued in a group of powerful men, who has a degree in physical chemistry, and is of course the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. She’s a Christian Democrat, so she probably doesn’t tick any of Harriet Harman’s boxes, but any creed of women’s solidarity that doesn’t include the most powerful woman in the world – Hillary Clinton never made it as head of government – frankly isn’t worth bothering our pretty heads with.

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