The Observer 27 September 2015
For years, I have asked smug questions about women’s rights, which are repeated by many men and more privileged women than feminists like to admit. “What’s the problem? And why the fuss?”
The battles for the vote, the right to work and to control fertility have been won – in the rich world at least. Individuals suffer sexual violence and discrimination. But deplorable though their suffering is, it cannot detract from the extraordinary advances women have made in the past 150 years. Today’s blazing rows about young lawyers calling out old lawyers who make passes at them are mere mopping-up operations in comparison to the struggles of the past.
What’s the problem, we ask, when women graduates earn three times as much as non-graduates within a decade of leaving university Why the fuss, we say, when schoolgirls are outperforming schoolboys across the developed world?
Many still want to fuss. Crowds have filled halls to support the new Women’s Equality party. Since March it has recruited more than 30,000 supporters. It will be running for office across the country next year: Sandy Toksvig will probably stand for London mayor; and a surprisingly large number of candidates may turn up at the Welsh assembly elections.
But beyond giving journalists the chance to write about the implied awfulness of Welsh men, Women’s Equality can appear to be a party without a serious point. It has no economic or foreign policy. Its members can be for or against Scottish independence, a war against Islamic State or the renewal of Trident. All they must believe is that there should be an end to violence against women, and that women should have equal representation in politics and business, equal pay and equal opportunities, and equal childcare responsibilities.
When no mainstream politician says he’s against equal pay for equal work, and not even the most extreme politicians say they are in favour of violence against women, it sounds a tad trite.
Trite, that is, until you look at the detail. The Women’s Equality party was formed in a moment of spontaneous anger at London’s South Bank Centre on 3 March. On stage were three MPs: Margot James, the first openly lesbian Tory MP; women’s minister Jo Swinson; and Stella Creasy, one of Labour’s few dynamic MPs, whose battle honours included forcing the government to regulate the pay-day loan racket.
Their feminism was impeccable. But the audience was restless. It wasn’t that they doubted the speakers’ commitment. They just did not believe that their parties would allow them to express it .
The same spirit – which created Ukip, the nationalist surge in Scotland and the Corbyn craze on the left – moved the hall.
Catherine Mayer, then a journalist on Time magazine, stood up to speak. Mayer is one of the best reporters I have seen. But she doesn’t just record the words of others. She has a few of her own. British women needed their own party she said. Only by threatening to take their votes would they force traditional politicians to act. If Ukip could make the major parties change their policies on immigration, an equality party could make them take women’s rights seriously.
“Anyone who wants to help me set one up can see me in the bar.” Mayer went to the bar, where she was promptly mobbed.
The fate of the women left stranded on the platform made Mayer’s point for her. Jo Swinson lost her seat after serving a coalition government that had done little to advance women’s rights and wellbeing. David Cameron won a majority but left Margot James stranded and powerless on the backbenches. Her isolation was as nothing, however, compared to the humiliations the Labour leadership visited on Creasy. She came second in the Labour deputy leadership election with 26%, a more than creditable performance since the winner, Tom Watson, had the trade union machine behind him.
But the far-left has never been a feminist movement – as Corbyn’s appearances on Iranian state TV, where he never protested against the ayatollahs’ suppression of women’s rights, show. Watson’s trade union movement is hardly feminised either. Its failure to attract women members is pushing it into irrelevance.
The new leaders panicked when they realised they had appointed men to all the top jobs – and not on merit either. So they might look better, they dragged in Creasy at the last minute and gave her a junior position. She can now attend shadow cabinet meetings, but not do anything so manly as vote. She is to be Corbyn’s window dressing and wallflower at the same time.
I have signed up to give £4 a month to the Women’s Equality – I know, I know, women will be the ruin of me. In part, I am paying my pittance because I know and like its leaders and want to help them meet the enormous costs of fighting elections in Britain. But my main reason was that I have learned – rather late in life – that the comforting story of the ascent of women is complacent to the point of somnolence.
Two women are murdered by their partners every week. If they were murdered by terrorists, we’d have martial law. As it is, we have an indifferent silence. Women make up only 30% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% of FTSE-100 company directors. When they complain, Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, supposedly the brainiest man in England, retorts that a push for more women judges would have “appalling consequences”.
If you worry that promoting women’s equality promotes the interests of those bright high-earning graduates, consider that women are more likely than men to be in low-paid work, more likely to head a single-parent household, and more likely to live in poverty, especially in their old age.
And in any case those bright high-earning graduates will soon see their male contemporaries overtake them. At the current rate it will be 70 years before the gender pay gap closes.
One of the party organisers said I should ask every woman I met whether a boss had ever propositioned her. I should also ask if they thought their careers had suffered because they were women. Male readers should try the same. If they hear the answers I did, they will understand why the notion of a Women’s Equality party is not quite as trite as it appears.
This article was amended on 7 October to correct Jo Swinson’s job title in March this year.