Finding my feminism?

Mary Southcott explores her feminism through the writings of two younger women

Recently a trans friend called me a TERF. I could not spell it, let alone knew it meant trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I could hardly claim to be radical feminist and denied transphobia. I knew about first wave feminism, even writing that women supporters of voting reform were the New Suffragettes, but have lost touch. Young feminists seem pro-trans and to want their mother or granny feminists out of their way.

Equality, surely the most important value for Labour, is about diversity, not sameness. That battle has not been won. Even though Labour did so badly in 2019 we have more women MPs. We need to change the political culture to a more feminised one of cooperation, consensus seeking and problem solving, and better arguments for voting reform than mathematical precision. Instead of taking sides in a binary choice we can support both trans and women’s rights. I needed to read more recent books than Germaine Greer and Lynne Segal.

When Helen Lewis left the New Statesman for the Nation, I cancelled my subscription which I had had from 1975 after meeting Tom Driberg, the first man in politics who listened to me rather than flirted. In the evening he went out with the men. I had always thought the Statesman‘s gender specificity was rather 19th century. It did however publish a letter I wrote when a parliamentary candidate attacked the ideas of Tactical Voting 87. That led to my being interviewed by John Underwood and Terry Dignan. When Charter 88 arrived, it published my article, ‘Electoral Reform and Me’. I have changed my mind about tactical voting, although I was right that Labour had more support than the Liberals who targeted Labour rather than the Tories in Bristol West. Clifton Labour members who may have never been in St Paul’s voted tactically for George Ferguson, and did again in 2012 when he became Bristol’s first elected mayor, as an independent.

I read Helen Lewis’s take on feminism, imagining she chose her title from Ken Clarke’s reference to Theresa May as “a bloody difficult woman”. I wished she had kept the “bloody”, but her subtitle, “A History of Feminism in 11 Fights”, provides the structure of her book. Now she is everywhere, reading her book on Radio 4, and the paperback is out in March. I was pleased she selected Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly lesbian MP, in her ‘Fight Number 7: Love’. Maureen has just died, but long ago after she was de-selected she was in favour of voting reform.

When second wave feminism began, I was approached to go to meetings but said, a bit resonant of Oscar Wilde, that there were Liverpool meetings most evenings and weekends. I left for Cyprus where I had to confront my cultural attitude to dowries, like fathers buying their daughters’ husbands.

Cyprus had little social housing before a third of their population became displaced. When I arrived in 1971, it was remarkable how high home ownership was and I could not think that the dowry system helped women who had basically bought their husbands. However, what I realised later was that even the poorest families give their daughters a dowry house even if the parents had to move out of their own homes or to small accommodation. The safeguard for women was they owned the house not their men, so if their men died or philandered or gambled their money away, or inflicted domestic violence – a theme of Lewis’s book in the section on Safety – the man was turfed out, not the wife.

I am not advocating dowries, but they put women and families in a better position than a refuge.

Three things woke me up to feminism. The joy that greeted the birth of my brother. Secondly, a meeting at the women’s centre in Piccadilly in 1975, heavily pregnant, with a husband left outside (I now understand the need for safe spaces), and the walls all posters on (‘Fight 10’) abortion and abuse (‘Fight 6: Safety’), identifying Erin Pizzey. Thirdly, having two daughters, trying to ensure the same prejudices I encountered were not repeated. But one woman taught me about feminism. I resisted going to the women’s section but defended the right to self-organise. Ellen Malos had set up a refuge in her home and written the counter arguments to Wages for Housework in The Politics of Housework.

I met Selma James, the idol of Helen Lewis, in her role in Wages for Housework. Often described as CLR James’s wife, as women often are, she appears in ‘Fight 9: Time’. She was depicted in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen. Do we judge people differently depending on what stage of their lives and ours we meet them? By the time I went to Greenham I had caught up with feminism circa 1983. Each “fight” in the book has a quote: “My grandmother didn’t have the vote, my mother didn’t have the pill and I don’t have the time.”

Helen’s first fight is Divorce, which surprised me from a young journalist. No-fault divorces and Baroness Brenda Hale get a mention. The second fight is The Vote and Annie Kenney. In ‘Fight 3: Sex’, Marie Stopes – whose book Married Love Lewis thinks “bonkers” but hopes “for more women, sex won’t be such a fucking let down”. Fight 4 is Play, where she explains why many women don’t care about sport because time and space are needed. Clearly this is changing, as is Work, her fifth fight. Lewis starts with Grunwick and Jayaben Desai and, via Jack Dromey, to Harriet Harman, Barbara Castle, and the Equal Pay and Equality Acts. That leads us to ‘Fight 8: Education’ and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and teachers.

Another of her difficult people is “tough, mouthy and uncompromising” Julie Bindel, who found herself on “the unfashionable side of the two most divisive and heated issues … transgender issues and prostitution”. Bindel attacked Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How to be a Woman as “fun feminism which should be consigned to the rubbish bin”. Helen Lewis has herself been attacked as “white, straight, and cisgendered, the top of the feminist food chain in terms of intersectionality” for defending Caitlin Moran, and clearly she has had a bruising time on social media where attacking women has become fair game.

Caitlan Moran is definitely a difficult woman. Her More Than A Woman also came out in 2020. It is part of a series starting with How to Build a Girl, a film of which was released last year. Her book, How to be a Woman, has been claimed as a game-changing take on feminism, the patriarchy and becoming a woman.

There could be no such different books. Helen’s has an index, a structure, but both are remarkably honest, funny and likeable. Caitlin’s is disorganised into hours in one day, reminding me only slighty of Solzhenitsyn’s take on Ivan Denisovich or the Beatles’ Day in the Life. Its Contents page takes us from 7am to 7am the following day, ending with ‘A Woman’s If‘ (apologies to Rudyard Kipling): “If you can beat the truth you’ve spoken Mansplained back to you ten minutes after everyone else ignored it”.

In among her discursive thinking Moran has a few political gems, like it is childcare, not housework, that is a job and should be paid for, and pointing out that for some golf is tax-deductible. She also makes the argument for liking one’s body. When Clare Short once said “we all want to be prettier”, I said I didn’t. I found it a distraction which I used to ignore. I would like to be alive to read Caitlin when she deals with ageism and being called “the elderly”. She brought me more understanding of double-income parents sharing time with their children: I took time off work to be with my daughter, time shared only with the Open University and shopping for some in the street.

I should have read Caitlin’s other books before this one. She argues that when you are under 30 it is all about you, but in middle age (44 at the time of writing) it is about others, the fourth emergency service for family and friends. Her stream of chattering uses words I have never seen written down, certainly not in her Times column. She discusses what any average woman would encounter, all the time thinking, linking, exploring ideas. Christopher Hitchens said that women weren’t as funny as men – his colossal misjudgement along with the Iraq war. These women are not only funny, they are worth reading.

Did I catch up with feminism? No. Will I bother? Perhaps not. Still a feminist? YES.

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights
by Helen Lewis
Jonathan Cape, 2020; p/b March 2021, Penguin
More Than A Woman
by Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press, 2020

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