On a surface level, it seems as though feminism is winning the gender war. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States, Theresa May has just become PM, and Angela Eagle is challenging Jeremy Corbyn to the most boring duel ever. In the cabinet reshuffle, a third of posts have been given to women, with Amber Rudd appointed Home Secretary – which brings up the grand total of women in the most ‘important’ roles from four to six (if we count Theresa May twice…) However, we should not conceive of this political situation as either feminist or beneficial.
To begin with the painfully obvious: being a woman does not make you a feminist; saying you’re a feminist does not make you a feminist. The women in these roles should not be hailed as our new feminist icons – they have variously contributed to growing militarism and the destruction of services for women and poor people. To celebrate this situation is the logical end of a certain twisted identity politics that is entirely ignorant of intersectionality.
That mainstream politics sees feminism as a one-dimensional movement is nothing new. Civil society lies far behind progressive politics in recognising that different women have vastly different experiences, and thus we are in the position we find ourselves in now. Having a few privileged white women in positions of power will do little for the majority of women – in fact, their supposed femininity serves to cloud their violent politics.
These women still come from the same warped bubbles as the rest of Westminster and Washington – they do not know the struggles of women across their nations, and they are most certainly not motivated by a love of womankind. When feminists celebrate women in positions of power, they ignore that the institutions of government are themselves detrimental to women and other oppressed groups.
When Theresa May wears her ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, we can begin to see the term ‘feminist’ lose all tangible meaning. What is it to be a feminist if that includes overseeing an immigration detention centre where women are racially and sexually abused? What is it to be a feminist if you support the indiscriminate murder of millions of people? We need to fight against institutional patriarchy, and the battle to do so is hindered by the false hope that having women in power will change that.
The glass cliff, introduced by Ryan and Haslam, is the idea that women are much more frequently put in positions of power when the situation is unstable. Thus, women are more likely to fail when they do attain positions of power, and this is taken to mean that they are incompetent. This concept applies near-perfectly right now: Theresa May has been chosen to replace David Cameron in incredibly uncertain circumstances; Angela Eagle’s leadership bid comes as the Labour party is in total disarray.
The feminism of political representation fights with a double-edged sword. If these women do succeed in their frankly terrifying missions, then it will make the positions of millions of women (and many others) even more difficult and violent than they already are. If these women fail, then this will reinforce the misogynistic belief that women are incompetent.
We shouldn’t be pushing for women to have power – we should be pushing for nobody to have power. The problem is not that there are not enough women inside patriarchal governmental institutions, but that these institutions exist at all. Feminism should fight for autonomy; mutual care; the ending of all kinds of oppression.
If we waste our time and energy consumed by the sexism faced by women in parliament then we are distracted from tackling the pressing issues that women are facing every day. No, we shouldn’t judge any woman on the clothes she wears, and no we shouldn’t assume women are worse at things than men, but we also shouldn’t jump to defend these awful women at the cost of focusing on the crimes they are committing.
So what alternative is there, for the feminist who wants to make a difference? We should be looking to the work of groups like Sisters Uncut, who recently occupied a council flat in Hackney to protest massive cuts to domestic violence services. They offered a free breakfast club for children, ran workshops on domestic violence and housing, and ran cooking classes. It’s all too easy to take a back seat and hope that the trickling of privileged women into positions of power will take feminism in the direction that it needs, but we should remember that feminism is about, by and for all of us.
We need to reclaim feminism from those who use it as a political tool; from those who use gender politics to hide their true motivations. Feminism needs to work for all of us. A feminism that does not understand intersectionality, care about working class issues, or distinguish between men being in power and patriarchy, is not a feminism we need.