Last Thursday night when most of the population was having candlelit dinners in overcrowded restaurants, burning their homemade culinary efforts, arranging flowers in vases, mistaking their partner slipping in the snow for a proposal, tearing into suspenders, I was at the Oxford Union debate on feminism.
Don’t feel sorry for me; it was amazing. The debate coincided with the 50th Anniversary of women being admitted to the Union – yup, only 50 years - and the motion was This House Believes We Are All Feminists Now.
Speakers for the proposition: former cabinet member Tessa Jowell, businesswoman Cindy Gallop, founder of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidh and Michael Beloff QC, a leading Silk and the Union President when women were first admitted (and also in possession of a surname which could easily be an amazing insult).
Speakers in opposition: Edwina Currie, former Conservative MP and purveyor of the witty sound bite (“Good Christian people don’t get AIDs”), leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett, Rachel Johnson editor of The Lady*, and awesome writer/editor and permanent target for online misogynist trolling, Laurie Penny.
Considering this was a debate in which attendees had forgone an evening of tonsil tennis, we were aptly rewarded with a gloves-off debate of punchy rhetoric and knock out lines. I especially liked the fact that mid-debate Rachel Johnson took to Twitter to mischievously shit stir the whole thing up (“ding-dong!”).
Michael Beloff spoke brilliantly on his time as President when he oversaw the admittance of women to the Union in 1963. Rachel Johnson discussed how degrading it is to be consistently referred to as Boris’ sister, Cindy Gallop spoke about how the majority of porn is “made by men for men”, Batmanghelidh told harrowing tales of young girls being gang-raped as a status-raiser for boys in inner city gangs, and Tessa Jowell discussed the limited ambition of young girls in her Dulwich constituency who would never, she said, see Oxford University as a remote possibility.
But this debate really belonged to a humdinger of an argument between Penny and Currie**. At one point, Penny actually left the chamber because she said she “felt sick”. This Currie, clearly, was hard to stomach. ZING.
The former Tory MP was the anomaly in the opposition team, as she was the only one arguing against the concept of feminism itself, rather than arguing it had not yet achieved enough. Her opening gambit was “I’m not a feminist, I love men”, which if it isn’t the very reason the internet term ‘facepalm’ was invented, should be. Even my four year old sister could come up with a better argument, and she doesn’t even exist.
I really didn’t think there was anyone out there who still thought being a feminist and not being misandrist were mutually exclusive, but apparently there’s Edwina Currie.
While at turns amusing and engaging – stealing the bell when it rang to warn her time was running out - it would be easy to characterise Currie as the perfect pantomime villain (despite it being against House rules, she was hissed at one point), indeed easy to dismiss her as the comic foil of the event, but as Penny pointed out, this was a pretty serious subject about a “fucked up” world, and in the end she was unceremoniously slaughtered in debate and her nonsensical theorising roundly dismissed by an audience majority.
At one point, there was a promising vignette from Currie as to how restricted and stymied she felt, as an independent young woman having travelled across America alone, to arrive as an Oxford undergraduate and be told she had to be in by 10.30pm. She then ruined this by creepily flirting with Michael Beloff for a solid ten minutes and going off on a tangent about stained sheets – as if we hadn’t heard enough about her sex life already.
Her main argument was that feminism is superfluous because apparently – our bad - the patriarchy is a myth, and women can achieve what they want without impediment if they are ambitious and courageous enough. Her evidence for this was Margaret Thatcher. “We have had a female Prime Minister”, she pointed out, triumphantly.
Well thanks for the history lesson, but there have been 75 British prime ministers, one has been a woman. Forgive me, but that’s not exactly raving equality right there. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
She went one further, accusing female members of the Labour party of betraying feminism for “chickening out” over not standing for leader (aside from Dianne Abbott). And, whilst I agree with her that it was disappointing that more women didn’t stand, it is disingenuous of her to suggest that there were not a variety of factors contributing to their decision not to.
At this point, Bennett brought the house down in response to Edwina Currie’s impassioned anti-feminist speech, with the assertion that the debate did not need to continue, as it had clearly been proven that We Are Not all Feminists Now.
To come back to Penny’s description of a “fucked up” world; while I am an optimist, she is right. How far have we come, really? Although permitted to attend some university lectures, women were not admitted membership to Oxford until 1920.
John Ruskin as Art Professor wrote in 1871: “I cannot let the bonnets in, on any conditions this term. The three public lectures will chiefly be on angles, degrees of colour prisms and other such things, of no use to the female mind and they would occupy the seats in mere disappointed puzzlement." Remind me to get a bonnet.
The first women’s only colleges – Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville – opened in 1879. Progress. Except in 1884; this, in an address to women at New College from John Burgon: "Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain", not to mention Dr. Whateley of Oriel College’s close observation that “a woman is a creature who cannot reason, and pokes the fire from the top”.
In 1926, the Union passed the motion 223 in favour that women’s colleges should be “levelled to the ground”. LOLz. Finally, under the Presidency of Beloff, women were admitted as Union members in 1963.
That was then, but what about now? Well, as various speakers noted, fewer than 10% of current Oxford professors are women. If, as Penny pointed out, even a supposedly right-on institution such as Oxford isn’t getting it right, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The BBC invites male experts onto their panels to discuss abortion and breast cancer (“If you were a woman…” – John Humphrys. GOOD GOD, SERIOUSLY?). A 2012 Women in Journalism (WiJ) study over a period of four weeks found that 78% of all front page articles were written by men, and just 22% by women. Over the same period the by-lines in The Independent were 91% male, and 9% female.
Bennett recalled the stat that presently only 17.3% of FTSE 100 directors are women, and 7 boards are all-male, this despite Gallop’s reminder that companies that have a significant number of women on their board actually perform better than those that do not.
We have our own Prime Minister telling elected female MPs in the House of Commons to “calm down, dear”, and calling them “frustrated”. We have the Australian leader of the opposition Tony Abbott telling their Prime Minister Julia Gillard to make “an honest woman of herself”, and endorsing campaign slogans “ditch the witch” and “a man’s bitch”.
American politicians seeking election give speeches in which they talk of “legitimate rape” and “shutting that whole thing down”, and a man running for the highest office in the world casually referencing “binders full of women” (possibly Mitt Romney had one eye on a Staples advertising deal sometime in the future). The Church of England synod voted against the introduction of women bishops.
I mean, are you shitting me? We are all feminists now? These are the people at the very top leaving their dirty footprints all over the glass ceiling. And this is looking at a very minor strata of privileged society.
Feminism should not be a middle class white concern. It irritates me when presented as such. Feminism is a global concern. It is Palestine’s female politician Hanan Ashrawi, it is the women of the Arab Spring rising against their oppression by a tyrannical patriarchy, it is Manal Al-Sharif defying Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers.
It is Pussy Riot now languishing in the gulags for daring to question Putin, it is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, it is Maria Santos Gorrostieta shot dead in Mexico while trying to make her township a safer place as its first female Mayor.
It is Waris Dirie and mothers fighting in Africa against female genital mutilation, and it is the campaign against horrific raping of women as a weapon of war in the Congo DRC and Rwanda.
Feminism is not just a Western debate about ‘having it all’, and home versus work, or a staple Cosmo article in a slow issue.
Indeed, Bennett along with Penny, both made the astute point that the motion depended on the definition of “we” and “feminist”. Who are “we” exactly? And what do we mean by “feminist”? I agreed with Cindy Gallop that, whilst the mostly awesome Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was absolutely right in suggesting that anybody who “sticks their hand down their pants and finds a vagina should call themselves a feminist”, so should anybody who sticks their hands down their pants and feels anything at all.
A near-consensus that came out of this debate was that we should all be feminists. Tessa Jowell talked of it in terms of optimism. She is right. One of the key facets of the movement is optimism that things will change. That is where the fight is, that is why it continues and must continue.
And while Laurie Penny encouraged us to vote for the motion (despite being on the opposition side) because she did not want people to hear about Oxford University voting against it, the truth is that the phrasing of the motion was not whether we should all be feminists, or whether feminism was A Good Thing, it was whether we are all feminists at present.
Clearly we are not – Edwina Currie a case in point – and that, is the fundamental reason why the No’s won this debate; 167 against the motion, to 125 in favour***. It’s time to stoke this fire from the bottom up.
*I’m not terribly au fait with The Lady. Except for the February 2009 issue, which I have read approximately 25 times over the last three years whenever I’m languishing in my doctor’s waiting room. It would literally be my Mastermind subject.
**This is still ongoing, see Twitter. “I am not on your side!” Laurie tells Edwina, like trying to shush a confused puppy outta the room that doesn’t get that right now, you’re not buddies.
***Or according to Edwina Currie, 160 to 110. Nice maths skills, Eddie.