THERE was a salutary moment for a young woman in the audience at the Lennoxlove Book Festival at the weekend.
The Labour MP Alan Johnson, who was speaking about his autobiography, recounted how his mother found it difficult to buy goods for the home when Johnson’s father left, not just because they were desperately poor, but because it was impossible then for a woman to get a hire purchase agreement without the signature of her husband. Seated next to me, a teenage girl looked up at her mother in surprise and horror. “Is that true?” she mouthed.
Sometimes it is hard to believe how different things were. The small anecdote from Johnson about his mother is a reminder of just how far we have come in what is a fairly short period time and of how much we owe to our forebears, to our mothers and our fathers who fought for the changes in the treatment and position of women in society. We should feel proud of their achievements. And yet, listening to the debate recently about the new £10 bank note – which in 2017 will have the face of Jane Austen – I could not help but feel embarrassed by the sorry state of contemporary campaigning that claims to fight for women’s interests today.
Frankly, given what much of feminism has become, I can no longer call myself a feminist. That is, feminism today seems to be primarily concerned with fiddling about with symbols – with words and pictures online and offline – and not about equality in the real world, not about structural change. Even worse, in many cases feminist campaigns present women as different to men and in need of special attention. As a consequence, campaigns end up targeting the wrong problem. Ultimately, they end up reinforcing differences, not similarities and equality at all.
Take the furore over the banknote. Jane Austen will now replace Charles Darwin on a piece of money and this is celebrated as a tremendous victory. When the news was announced, the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez said it was a “brilliant day for women”. A little more realism is called for here – all we are talking about is placing a portrait of a woman on a £10 note. The obsession with how things appear rather than, say, the question of equal pay – and women still don’t get the same money for the same role as men, in some cases – we are reduced to arguing over images. Given this one-sided concern with appearances, it should be little surprise that in no time at all a row broke out over whether the specific picture chosen of Jane Austen was appropriate. On the Today programme, Oxford University fellow Dr Paula Byrne complained that it made Austen look like “a pretty doll with big doe eyes” and that it was “airbrushed”.
A respectable, historical fight for equality has been scaled down to a never-ending tinkering over the portrait of a 19th-century novelist rather than a debate over the position of women society: their pay, or their status. And women in these debates now just sound a bit whiny. It follows, with their line of thinking, that a victory for their feminism would be Jane Austen looking like a plain woman. But is this what the Pankhurst sisters were fighting for? I don’t think so. What about a decent argument for good, cheap childcare? That is a question rarely raised. What about tackling other barriers to equal treatment?
Arguing over appearances is what we are reduced to. Just look around you. The other high profile campaign in recent times has been over the depiction of women in lad’s mags, and the Sun’s Page 3. I almost sympathise; these magazines and newspapers are hardly my preferred reading material, but that is the way it should be in a free society, there should be a diversity of media.
Most objectionable, of course, is the idea that we ladies need protecting from pictures of scantily clad girls, that this is our primary concern, and that men are a threat to us if they look at this stuff, so wild will these pictures send them. It all sounds a bit Victorian. Both women and men are demeaned with this perspective which sees women as victims and men as threats. Taken together, these campaigns to alter appearances suggest that it is here where significant change occurs and is created, and that is a distraction which ends up with illiberal action.
What about other activism, I hear you ask. What about getting more women into top positions in politics and in business? Well, there is a campaign to achieve this but in most instances what is called for is positive discrimination and that is a problem. Since the 1990s, Labour has promoted all-women shortlists in the selection of its parliamentary candidates. The SNP, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have resisted such action, but this could change. We have just heard that Alex Salmond is seeking new powers to tackle the under-representation of women in Scotland’s public sector boardrooms, which could mean setting quotas for the number of women running public bodies. Labour argues that calling for new powers is unnecessary and that the Scottish Government could take action on this now.
But quotas would be a step backward. Older generations fought for women to be treated as equal to men. They did not fight to be treated differently, as not quite capable, as in need of special treatment. And make no mistake, quotas in politics or quotas in the boardroom suggest that women are not up to it on their own, that they are not good enough, that they require discrimination to succeed. Not only is this untrue, it is the wrong message to send to young women today and to young men. Women who are chosen on this basis will forever be seen as the girl who got the job because of her gender and not her ability. Her colleagues will not respect her. They will not see her as their equal.
We have come a long way. It is important that we don’t betray the achievements of the past, but build on them. There is nothing positive about positive discrimination. It should be a truth universally acknowledged that women should be treated no differently than a man.