The trouble with Left-wing activists telling people to fuck off and join the Tories is that, eventually, someone might take them at their word. For the past five years, the British Left has felt like a hostile environment for feminism. And feminists who have long taken for granted that the Labour Party was their party, and The Guardian was their paper, have had to confront the possibility that maybe, after all, there might be a more welcoming place for them somewhere else on the political spectrum.
This is not to say that there aren’t many on the Left who consider themselves to be feminists and are happy with the party’s direction of the previous half-decade. It’s even true that in that time, Labour politicians have achieved a few feminist victories (although largely these have been accomplished by Stella Creasy in relation to abortion law, and without significant support from the front bench). But the kind of feminism permissible on the Left has been a narrow kind, with little room for discussion about its aims and underpinnings.
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While Labour continued to offer its record in Government as proof that it was the natural home of women’s rights — the party of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the Equality Act (2010) and all-women shortlists — it was simultaneously going to war on its own record by endorsing gender self-identification, which would render all those measures incoherent. And anyone who expressed doubts about gender identity as a solid basis for legislation would find out very fast that they had placed themselves firmly outside acceptable thought on the Left, despite the fact that self-identity was driven by the Conservative MP Maria Miller.
Obviously, plenty of people on the Left still held these unacceptable thoughts. When Dawn Butler, then the shadow minister for women and equalities, uttered the absurdity that “a child is born without sex”, she was hardly voicing majority opinion on the Left. When Suzanne Moore wrote a Guardian column against the harassment and no-platforming of the historian Selina Todd for her gender-critical views, many outside the immediate blast zone of the issue were surprised that this could even be up for debate: of course women should be able to speak, especially when it comes to matters directly affecting their rights.
Nonetheless, it was Moore, not Butler, who was subject to bitter criticism from the Left. Saying you don’t believe in sex had become a safer Left-wing position than saying you do believe in women’s civil liberties. It doesn’t matter how solid your commitment to redistribution is, how fervent your anti-racism, how deep-rooted your ties to LGBT liberation, how committed you are to the trade union movement, how adamantly you support public services. A narrative was established that any criticism of trans activism could only come from the Right, with journalism in the paranoid style drawing feverish connections between British socialists and American evangelicals.
The perverse consequence of this is that many feminists have ended up closer to the Right than they ever imagined. Certainly I would not have predicted that a nice social democrat girl like me would end up writing defences of women’s toilets for the Spectator, or condemning rape threats against JK Rowling in the Telegraph — or rather, if you’d told me a decade ago that I couldn’t write these things for a Left-wing outlet, I would have been very shocked indeed. (Then again, I’d have been surprised to learn there would ever be an occasion to write them.)
But politics has shifted drastically during my adulthood. Old boundaries and expectations do not apply. The best description I’ve read of this shift has come in a New York Times column by Ross Douthat (and the me of a decade ago would also have been surprised to find myself aligned with Douthat given that I’m a pro-choice feminist and he’s a firm opponent of abortion, but here we are).
Progressive movements, he argues, are no longer beholden to conventional liberal principles. Instead, they “contain within themselves both reformist and revolutionary tendencies, and progressives regularly move back and forth between the two”. This is, he points out, what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology” – successor, because it is primed to succeed liberalism, although it so far lacks an internal coherence of its own.
So a feminist might ask how self-identification would work in the prison system where vulnerable women need to be protected from predatory male offenders, and the successor ideology response would be that we should abolish the prison-industrial complex, at which point segregation would cease to be an issue. Or, if the issue is how to include trans women in refuges, the successor ideology could answer that the real aim should be ending all male violence rather than just ameliorating its effects — a laudable goal, but a remote one.
It’s a shift to utopianism that evades all responsibility for material conditions in the present, while justifying the removal of rights now as a trade-off against the glorious kingdom to come. Why do you need free speech to talk about sex when you have the post-gender future to look forward to? (Means of reaching the post-gender future remaining very much TBC.) For feminism, which has to be about directly improving women’s lives and prospects if it’s to be about anything at all, this is all deeply unsatisfying. If the Right is able to offer at least a common ground of norms, why not work there?
In any case, the idea that feminism inherently belongs to the Left is — if not false, at least a bit flaky. The suffragists and suffragettes covered a whole range of political opinion with outliers on Left and Right, united by their belief that they should be able to express those opinions at the ballot box. The second wave was galvanised by a split between the women’s movement and the anti-war Left.
Keir Starmer’s Labour has clearly signalled its intent to move beyond inchoate radicalism and get back to policy on women’s issues, and this is very positive, but feminism can no more be taken for granted by the Left than the “red wall” could. And if women stop shaping their demands to fit a political movement that has clearly signalled its complacency towards them, and start working in the interests of their sex regardless of affiliation, feminism could emerge from this bleak era with a force it hasn’t had since the last century.