Theresa May’s feminist gaffe.

 

In his first week in office, the new US President:

                  Trump has proclaimed war against the media, been accused of serial lying,      declared open season on environmentalists and undocumented migrants,                 outraged the Mexican president, begun stripping millions of Americans of healthcare coverage, removed funding to organisations that offer abortion advice or procedures, and revived the prospect of torturing terror suspects (Ed Pilkington, reporting from Michigan [28 01 2017] ‘Trump fans. ”I think he’s doing a phenomenal job”’, The Guardian).

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, has shown haste in securing a meeting with Trump, at the head of the queue of other foreign leaders – except “all the others had thought better of it” (John Crace’s sketch [28 01 2017] ‘When the Donald met Theresa and not Teresa’, The Guardian). Given her increasingly hardline attitude to the UK’s Brexit process, this enthusiasm is disturbing.

Theresa May’s summit with Donald Trump conceals an ambitious, perhaps      desperate, British agenda: to enhance ties with strongman leaders in the US, Israel, Turkey and Poland as relations fray with key EU players, notably France and Germany (Simon Tisdall [28 01 2017] ‘Rights set aside as PM courts strongmen’, The  Guardian).

So is cosying up to leaders of countries with ultra-conservative and authoritarian domestic policies and rubbish human rights records going to replace established UK ties with, for example, EU social democracies? Do Trump’s claims that torture works and climate change is a hoax get to be sidelined in the building of the new ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK?

The advent of Trump’s administration exemplifies hetero-patriarchal masculinity on parade: armed and dangerous, and coming to a life like yours. . . .

Inclusive, bold, feminist activism.
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, women were on the move, planning a Women’s March in Washington DC, for 21 January 2017, his first day in office. As Kaylin Whittingham, president of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, announced:

A march of this magnitude, across this diversity of issues, has never happened        before. We all have to stand together as a force no one can ignore (cited Joanna Walters, reporting from New York [14 01 2017] ‘Inauguration of Trump is expected to be eclipsed by huge protest march of women’, The Guardian).

Beginning as a feminist rallying cry via social media, the call attracted more than 200 progressive groups and partners, representing issues including: the environment, abortion rights, prisoners’ rights, voting rights, a free press, affordable childcare, gun safety, racial and gender equality, and a higher minimum wage (cited Walters, ibid). Jessica Neuwirth, who heads the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, called it “a comprehensive call for social justice and equal rights” (cited Walters, ibid.) And so it came to pass, and not just in Washington DC, but in other US cities and cities across the world. .) See ‘This looks like defeat. But all is not lost’ in Category ‘Comment 2017’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com.

These worldwide demonstrations were not just protesting Trump’s social and political agenda as president. These demonstrations were feminist acts for all participants, as a stand against the man himself: the man who takes pleasure in threatening women’s rights (e.g. reproductive rights, going so far as to suggest that women who have abortions should be punished); the man “who mocks menstruation, and grabs vaginas’ (Hadley Freeman [28 012017] ‘No president cares more about size – let’s show Trump how many of us oppose him’, The Guardian Weekend).

 Misogyny and racism were key acknowledged triggers for these street uprisings in major cities worldwide. These were protests against the abuses perpetrated by hetero-patriarchal masculinity and sexualized male dominance. Widely described as narcissistic, Trump exemplifies the worst of this breed.

The problem isn’t men, but those men with narcissistic traits. Narcissists view their   needs, their entitlements, their ambitions, as far more real than anyone else’s. They brook no criticism, whether justified or not, and tolerate no humiliation. They will     punish those who try to thwart them . . . . to a narcissistic man such as this, no one               matters but himself. He is all-important. Because feeling superior is so essential to his being, and because his desire to have his superiority affirmed is bottomless, he is far more likely to casually indulge in misogyny, racism, class prejudice – you name it   – because the less like him you are, the less you could possibly matter (Deborah Orr [28 01    2017] ‘I grew up in a man’s world. I’ve seen the damage narcissistic men can do’, The Guardian).

Theresa May’s performance.
                  Their hands remained uneasily entwined as they walked down the colonnade                 towards the Palm Room. . . Trump started to creepily stroke and pat her hand. . . (John Crace, ibid).

The sight of May and Trump, hand-in-hand, in a ‘just-married’ pic, will have made a good few of the protesters on the Women’s Marches retch. She didn’t have to go that far; she chose to go that far, to display what she thought was her power as a woman prime minister. And in that display of heterosexual intimacy with this misogynist and racist, her ethical credibility was soiled; as a woman leader her efficacy was compromised; and any feminist awareness and commitment towards women as a diverse constituency, is dead in the water.

She chose to distance herself from the powerful feminist demonstrations of the 21 January, and the women and men who together bore witness to the importance of social justice issues, equality and human rights as central to democracies, and not mere ‘minority’ issues, optional extras. Her Tory individualism and personal ambition rule.

“Underpinning May’s approach was a kind of optimistic naivety tinged with arrogance” (Jonathan Freedland [28 01 2017] ‘Never mind the optics, May’s dash was mortifying’, The Guardian). Her deportment and body language, as well as her silence on key social justice and equality issues, made it clear she is prioritising the hard men of the extreme right (at home and abroad). She wants to be accepted as one of them, as equal: a populist and authoritarian leader. In a short skirt and heels.

29 01 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This looks like defeat. But all is not lost.

The cumulative impact of political events in 2016 in the USA and the UK, specifically the UK EU referendum leading to the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President, has left those who suffered ‘defeat’ in those elections, not just feeling defeated but bereft: agonizingly bewildered and disempowered.

The fact that so many white women in the US saw Trump’s misogyny, racism and cavalier disregard for facts and evidence as no reason not to vote for him, punches a big hole in the feminist project and any idea of political ‘sisterhood’, not just in the US.

The fact that such a man could seduce large sections of the electorate by means of his unabashed misogyny, racism and lies (now called “alternative facts”); his concerted incitement of hatred and contempt for so may social constituencies; and his fostering of fear as a means to social control: this violent onslaught laid waste the grounds for mutuality, reciprocity and inter-cultural co-habitation.

The wall of misogyny and racism these political events have exposed, intensified and glorified, is not new, but has suddenly acquired an ‘official’ status and institutional power that aims to undo and bury the achievements that equality, environmental, and peace activists have worked for over so many years. The crude triumphalism delivering this hetero-patriarchal surge of testosterone adds to the misery of his diverse opponents/ victims.

In the wake of this biggest of political upheavals, and the second time in recent history that the clear winner of the popular vote has been prevented by the American Electoral College from claiming the presidency, neither screaming nor silence will serve us. American stand up Alec Baldwin screamed his protest and pain after Trump’s triumph, noting that we, the defeated, were expected to give up quietly. To shut up, roll over and accept defeat in silence. But in response to his call, it was clear his audience, like him, had other ideas.

Given the unseemly, ugly and deceitful campaigns waged, and the central roles played by racism and misogyny; given that all the signs are that under Trump’s administration, equality and social justice, healthcare, environmental protections and social care, and international collaboration, for example, will be relinquished as democratic values and goals, what is the evidence so far that the populations on both sides of the Atlantic, who reject the authority and legitimacy of these election results, will acquiesce and submit quietly?

Women take the lead.
Amidst the outrage and despair, the fear and uncertainty, Saturday 21 January 2017 offered us a sign of hope. The Million Women March in Washington DC, called at short notice to protest the Trump agenda, triggered a wave of solidarity rallies led by women in other US cities, as well as across the world, including London and Liverpool in the UK.

In DC many more people turned up than had attended Trump’s inauguration the previous day. The televised evidence is clear. The aerial filming of the gatherings in these cities provided stunning evidence of women’s power to initiate and lead, and of people power, as these events attracted (e.g. in Liverpool) the participation of men, babies and small dogs, and not just seasoned feminists, but adults (women and men) who have never attended a public demonstration in their lives, but had been moved by the seriousness of the situation to act (I’m drawing here on a conversation with a couple of strangers at the Liverpool rally of 1000 people outside St Georges Hall.)

In Chicago, the streets were so jam-packed with demonstrators, people couldn’t march as planned, but bore witness, shoulder to shoulder, in their great numbers. And to see so many people sporting bright pink knitted beanies with ‘pussy ears’ felt like feminist insurrection! Don’t think Trump could explain or dismiss that with his “alternative facts”. In Liverpool, one of the small placards read: “Pussies for Peace”. There were many other heartfelt, passionate, pointed and witty messages. All defiant. As ever, humour was wielded as powerful political ‘talkback’. We all felt better for it.

It was women of colour in the US who had initiated this wave of activism, allowing so many angry, despairing and frightened souls to take to the streets, to demonstrate that courage, hope, determination and collectivity were not in short supply, despite Trump’s ascendancy. As a start to 2017, this uprising will have saved many of us, and not just women, from feeling that the odds against truth and justice, equality and fairness, and global mutuality and responsibility had just become insurmountable. The joy of being present at one of these demonstrations, and/or witnessing them on TV or social media, cannot be underestimated as political and politicizing. Good news.

Meanwhile, we brace ourselves.
As Trump overreaches himself in his first week of office, pounding out one astounding edict after another at breakneck speed, he is leaving individuals, communities, organisations, politicians, journalists, diplomats and countries reeling in fear and disbelief. The enormity of what is being attempted by this peevish narcissist and braggart, who, like all bullies and dominators is used to thinking he is fireproof, untouchable, will surely trigger national and international efforts at defence and containment, hopefully short of war. Early impeachment would be an honourable start.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, alone among national leaders, rushes over to the US to make friends and ‘do deals’ with Trump, as if it’s business as usual. Given May’s passion for fashion and ‘femininity’, I mused to a feminist friend in a text: “I wonder what she will decide to wear. . . and what shoes?!” She replied tartly: “May needs to remember that, whatever she wears, she’s just ‘pussy’ to him.” Will this fact assist or hinder the ‘special relationship’ May seeks?

Well she chose to turn up in a skirt, with bare legs, arriving in freezing weather. She obviously thinks her ‘femininity’ (her legs) will serve her in this political encounter. By talking to journalists on the plane, ‘flirtatiously’, about “opposites attracting each other” (referring to herself andTrump), she exposes her inadequacy as a responsible and competent political actor: she’s just a personally ambitious, rather conventional, middle class, heterosexual Tory woman, who lacks feminist antennae or motivation.

May appears to be approaching her meeting with Trump (a known sexual abuser and misogynist, who sees women as sexual targets and trophies, who can be “grabbed by the pussy” without complaint), as a heterosexual woman displaying her knees, thinking she can challenge or seduce his male dominance and emerge unscathed and victorious. She may be overestimating her prowess, and the power of clothes to seduce or intimidate (neither a ‘winner’). The press has already referred, delicately, to her “charm offensive”. Is she seriously going to try to flirt her way into this new special relationship? As opposed to raising, for example, the issue of women’s rights (including reproductive rights) as human rights, on behalf of her ‘sisters’ worldwide. Where’s a feminist when you need her?

May has also chosen Holocaust Memorial Day for this significant first visit to Trump. Not perhaps her most sensitive decision yet.

27 01 2017

Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest.

Expanded version of letter published in The Guardian (04 08 2016).

  • Preamble.
  • More than mere words.
  • Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
  • Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
  • Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.

Preamble.
Angela Eagle approves Labour MP, Owen Smith’s apology for his recent, aggressive, sexist comments about prime minister, Theresa May (Guardian, 30 07 2016), when he suggested Labour should “smash” the prime minister “back on her heals”. This was described as “his recent slip-up” and as “a clumsy promise” (Anushka Asthana interview, ‘There’s no point being sore’, The Guardian Journal, 30 07 2016). In this interview, Angela recommends “sensitive use of language” and comments: “Owen has shown a capacity to recognise and apologise for insensitivity, and that’s important”.

More than mere words.
But this is not, as her stance implies, a question of rude, unkind or cruel language, or even language that offends. Her own language about Smith’s “slip-up” is distinctly cautious, conservative and apolitical: uninformed by years of theory and research (especially feminist and post colonial), which has reframed and extended politics in terms of the politics of, e.g. food, violence, sexuality, health, housing, multiculturalism and language. I suspect she is concerned not to be identified with the idea of ‘political correctness’, within which issues of language and behaviour have played such a big part; a label used by politicians and the media to rubbish and ridicule equality and social justice initiatives, especially those pertaining to gender issues, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Angela’s stance fails to acknowledge that the issue is about language as a function of and constitutive of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and incitement to hatred. It is about language as social power and as an abuse of power and privilege, which in turn contaminate the body politic and public spaces, rendering these less safe for their targeted constituencies, and making society and individuals less welcoming and accepting of difference and diversity, and more fearful of each other.

The recent EU Referendum campaign exemplified how months of public figures, including politicians, relentlessly demonising ‘foreigners’, and/or those whose difference was visible (skin colour, facial features, dress), as the enemy within, as Other, have consequences. Recklessly racialising political discourse resulted in an overnight change after the Brexit vote, in terms of what was seen as allowable speech and behaviour. People of colour and others suddenly felt less safe, less accepted, more at risk as citizens, even if they had lived and worked here for many years.

Owen Smith’s reaction to Theresa May on this occasion, like previous ‘gaffes’ by Cameron (“Calm down dear!” to Angela Eagle herself), Boris Johnson, Farage, et al, was no mere linguistic misdemeanor. Such behaviour exposes the inner workings of these men’s minds: their lingering heterosexism, racism, homophobia and/or misogyny; who they are as men. For the Labour party to think an MP who exhibits such attitudes is fit for office, never mind being considered as leadership material, is beyond belief. As reported in the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere online, this man has form. www.newstatesman.com/2016/07/four-times-owensmith-has-made-sexist-comments
27 Jul 2016 –
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith-labour-leadership-dodgy-copy-theresa-may-smash-her-back-on-her-heels-a7159621.html

Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
The acceptance of Owen Smith as a leadership candidate confirms that the entwined issues of racism/misogyny/homophobia as both legitimate political targets for Labour (as important as social class and poverty) and as serious issues for the culture of the Labour party and the trade unions, still have a way to go. In the unseemly rush by the PLP to support any MP prepared to stand against the current elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Parliamentary Labour Party has exposed its lack of commitment to equality and social justice issues, and democratic values, in particular regarding misogyny and homophobia. The sight of prominent Labour women embracing (literally) a candidate whose back story and political conduct display ignorance of and/or unconcern for those hard fought historical campaigns and political issues and values, made me catch my breath in disbelief.

It’s 2016, but these values are clearly not part of his personal and political identity and practice as a man. Citing Owen’s track record so far, David Wearing doubts that Owen Smith is “the man to drive through root-and-branch reform of British capitalism, and to challenge majority views on issues including welfare and immigration” (see David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’.The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

So, at Saturday’s Liverpool Pride (30 07 2016), there was Owen swinging along, busy with damage limitation: having his smiling photo taken with as many women as he could fling his arm around (it looked as if he had brought his own photographer). In view of his leadership bid, he really needed to be seen mingling with gay activists and other non “normals” (having previously described himself as the “normal” candidate – heterosexual, married with kids – as opposed to Angela, ‘the gay candidate’). Meanwhile, Wallasey CLP members were out in force behind their banner, but there was no sign of Angela, their MP, who this year presumably felt she couldn’t afford to be seen with them, given her complicity in the accusations of homophobia and intimidation in the LP and by Wallasey CLP members.

She has been reported as saying that “Jeremy Corbyn had created a ‘permissive environment’ in which Labour MPs who opposed him faced abuse, on and offline” (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian Weekend, 30 07 2016). And she has said that “Corbyn’s failure to deal with bigotry and intimidation had ‘tarnished the party’s reputation”’ (cited Peter Walker & Rowena Mason, ‘Up to 50,000 new Labour supporters face vote bar’. The Guardian, 03 08 2016). By contrast, there are Wallasey CLP members who see things very differently (see www.newstatesman.com/…/homophobic-slurs-against-angela-eagle-wallasey-ive-only…

Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
The latest smear against Jeremy Corbyn, the claim that before he became leader there were no such problems, is laughable (but not funny), mendacious and vindictive. Those MPs (and Guardian journalists) adopting this stance, could do with reading some evidence to the contrary, posted in October 2012: ‘Sexism and Activism: What’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking Through and Beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the Category ‘Essays’.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, Corbyn supporters / Momentum, have been variously demonised as the ‘hard left’, as ‘extremists’, and more recently, akin to Donald Trump as a “fringe group” and “cult” (Hadley Freeman, ibid.). Hadley ties Corbyn and Trump together as heading “cults of personality”. This is quite nasty stuff, not least from a journalist I have previously respected. But I suspect that Labour MP, Diane Abbott, is better informed, as she describes a scenario I recognise from these last months of my involvement with Merseyside Momentum (public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, conversations, debates, and great warmth and good humour between us):

Like (Bernie) Sanders, the left insurgency Corbyn is associated with is not about one man or a cult of personality. The insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism. That realisation is not going away (cited Walker & Mason, 03 08 2016). Emphasis added.

Similarly, Wearing argues that:

Jeremy Corbyn’s support unites around clear basic principles: the need to break decisively with neoliberalism, in favour of a new egalitarian economic model, and to defend migrants, minority-ethnic people and those on social security from the rising tide of bigotry and the effects of spending cuts (Wearing, ibid.). Emphasis added.

“A burning rage at New Labour’s politics of inequality widens a divide that goes well beyond the leadership” (ibid.) Wearing notes that New Labour’s agenda was never transformative, but was “primarily about deference to the established order (ibid.).” He cites an illuminating example from a Fabian society conference in 2010, when:

A pitch for a Green New Deal to provide a Keynesian stimulus, create good jobs and    decarbonise the economy was greeted enthusiastically by delegates but rejected by Gordon Brown’s pollster, Deborah Mattinson, who said that while climate change was ‘the biggest issue facing humanity” this was not an idea she could sell to voters (Wearing, ibid.).

Wearing describes this as the essence of Labour’s current civil war:

On one side a grassroots bursting with ideas, determined to tackle the most urgent    issues; on the other a party establishment so deferential to ‘political reality’ that the             survival of human civilisation has to take a back seat (ibid.).

This, he says, is the struggle between small-c conservatives and progressives, and Corbyn “represents a head-on challenge to a status quo that a broad swath of left-progressive opinion now considers intolerable” (ibid.).

Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.
The fact that Owen Smith is 46 would seem to have disadvantaged him, in as much as he was pretty much born into neoliberalism, and appears untouched by critical feminist and social justice values, for example. By contrast, like many longstanding Labour supporters, or those returning to the fold, 67 year old Jeremy has lived through and been part of many of the liberatory political campaigns of the past 40 or 50 years. He has been that relatively rare being: an activist, as well as a politician.

At the same time, the unprecedented, burgeoning support from young people, their wild enthusiasm for Jeremy as Labour leader and what he stands for, suggests that, even despite the power of consumerism, they have not internalised the neoliberal mantra (TINA – there is no alternative), that pits us against each other, dismantles the public sector and its values of service rather than competition and exploitation. For them TINA makes no sense and is a call of despair, an invitation to accept powerlessness.

When Angela and Owen publicly agree that Austerity is the right way, perhaps they should pause and reflect on how Austerity politics positions, not just young people, but the majority; and the contempt for them that adopting even an Austerity-lite position conveys. Labour can never be the party that deploys poverty as social control and as a political strategy. That’s the Tory way.

Born into a period shaped by feminist and environmental activism, multiculturalism, heightened LGBTU and disability awareness and confidence, and improved understanding of mental health issues, for these young people (and oldies who have stayed awake and sentient during these cruel neoliberal years), climate change, the importance of gender power relations, multiculturalism, racism and public health issues, for example, are no longer niche political abstractions but lived realities: a new ‘normal’ that nonetheless needs defending, not rolling back.

And after 6 years of first the Tory coalition, now full blown Tory war on the very idea of society, including human rights legislation, and post the EU referendum result, there is surely more urgency in working towards proportional representation, and the strategic building of alliances between anti Austerity social democratic parliamentary parties, if the Tories are not to be left (with their tiny majority) to settle in for the long, foreseeable future (which is no future for the majority).

This is not the 1980s and this is not a journey back to what has gone before. It is a movement to create a different and better future, rooted in the contemporary realities and social movements cited above, starting by changing how we do politics now, together, for example by democratising the Labour party. Peer process, not hierarchy: all ages, all backgrounds, all circumstances.

(See also ‘”The trouble is . . .  ” Economists, economics, and the UK Left.’ Posted 07 02 2016 in Commentary 2016 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com. And ‘A “shared somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’ Posted in Conference Presentations 2014 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

val walsh / 04 08 2016

 

 

The 2016 EU Referendum.

 

The recent homophobic and racist murders in Orlando, and the misogynist, fascist murder of UK Labour Party MP Jo Cox, are not incidental to the EU Referendum this Thursday (23 06 2016). These violations have not just added urgency to the Referendum decision, but, I suggest, changed the substance of that decision-making process.

Since November 2012, we can and must speak of a post Savile era: a necessary cultural and political break with a shameful past of uninterrupted child abuse in and around public institutions, and paedophile denial and collusion over many years, that protected Savile and left children exposed to sexual abuse and its lingering psychological aftermath into adulthood, as victims were blamed and silenced. Four years later and UK society is openly predicated on that past as it seeks to become a social and political refutation of those historical presumptions and denials: a different society. 

No longer a referendum on the EU.
The way in which the Leave camp has conducted its EU Referendum campaign, escalating distortions (on immigration, housing, employment); reiterating lies (notably the £350M EU price tag and its devotion to the NHS); and misrepresentation (e.g. regarding EU democracy and its legislative process, the relationship between EU directives and UK social, environmental and industrial practices and safeguards, and the movement of peoples), makes this, just days before the vote, another such pivotal moment for the UK.

Faced with the combined rhetorical efforts of media favourites, Michael Gove, Boris Johnston, Ian Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, and sundry other poisonous political ‘heavies’ on the Right, the virtues or otherwise of the EU, even the facts we might wish to consult or highlight, such as: ‘There’s no hope of saving the planet without making rules together against scorching ourselves to death” (Polly Toynbee, ‘On Friday I’ll get my country back. We will vote remain’, The Guardian, 21 06 2016), have become incidental. Not to mention international, fascistic ‘stars’, such as Vladimir Putin and Marie le Pen, aligning themselves with the Leave team. As John O’Farrell presciently (and hilariously) declared back in April: ‘Never mind the EU arguments, just look who’s talking’ (The Guardian, 25 04 2016). Two days away from the actual Referendum, it’s no longer funny and right, but seriously, frighteningly right.

It is not a matter of different opinions and choices: shopping cannot be the model for our politics. It is rather the difference between values and behaviours that uphold and nourish (however imperfectly) social democracies, against anti-democratic behaviours that embody authoritarianism, elite heteropatriarchal male dominance and violence, as ways of doing life’s business. And that business is the annihilation of difference, via homophobia, misogyny, racism, together with institutionalised and escalating inequality: the enforced impoverishment of the majority and the runaway wealth of a tiny number:

The system is designed to transfer wealth from the people who create it to the               people who already have it” (Paul Mason, ‘Executive pay is obscene – restructuring               the economy is the only way to curb it’, G2 14 06 2016).

So the task for us in the EU Referendum on Thursday is quite simply to demonstrate our understanding that these are the enemies of democratic and peaceful co-habitation and that as a society we will not endorse that path. We will stop these elite white men’s triumphal ascent in the UK to even more power at the people’s expense.

Orlando and Jo Cox
These most recent murders teach us that our individual votes should not be dependent on how we value and evaluate the EU as an economic / social / cultural / political project or dream. More urgently, it has become about how best to avoid violent social meltdown in England and the wider UK. How best to interrupt the momentum of those politicians, media and other power brokers on the Right, who, in particular since 2010, have been promulgating fear and inciting hatred, to further their own vested interests, their desire for untrammelled personal and political power, dominance and control.

How to stop them ripping us out of the EU; breaking up the UK; and finishing the job the Tory government has set itself, of dismantling our precious post 1945 welfare settlement and the public services that underpin our democracy, including the NHS?

Voting Remain is surely our only hope of blocking their exuberant and well funded attacks on our society and democracy, and buying ourselves time to come good on the values and priorities that informed the life, the love and the work of social justice activist and Labour MP, Jo Cox. It will not be sufficient, but it is a necessary step in turning the tide against this Tory government and the bigotry, racism and social divisions it has been instrumental in fostering as tools of social control.

val walsh / 21 06 2016

[This is an expanded version of a statement presented from the floor at a public meeting organised by ‘Another Europe is possible’, at The Liner Hotel, Liverpool on 20 06 2016.]

The Daughter Challenge.

After thoughts to Liverpool’s What Women Want’s first meeting of four
on whole family approaches to mental health (04 09 2014).

At the meeting I drew attention to the potential problem of gender-neutral language (young people, adults, carers, parents, children, etc.) when dealing with girls’ and women’s experience and health issues. I suggested that ‘daughter’ should be a key informing focus as we start this next phase of enquiry, rather than ‘mother’/ parent / carer, not to diminish these identities and roles, but because, from the outset, we are all daughters.

After the meeting the thought lingered, reminding me of the basics (culture and power relations) underpinning this area of concern. Here I share these after thoughts, in order to clarify and expand on that initial observation and its potential relevance to the group’s process and preoccupations.

• ‘Daughter’ is our primary biological and social identity, the basis for everything that follows, including cultural expectations attached to a range of subsequent roles, such as girl, sister, girlfriend, lover, sexual and domestic partner, aunt, mother, parent (e.g. foster and step), in law, grandmother; as well as friend and colleague; and not forgetting the expanded influence of social / media / commercial pressures in the context of contemporary turbo consumerism, fundamentalism / religions, all busy promoting and normalising patriarchal values and practices across societies, communities, social classes and castes. ‘Daughter’ is not a ‘natural’ category.
• In most (all?) societies, ‘daughter’ is not a gendered equivalent or parallel to ‘son’, being variously a mark of ‘inferiority’, subordination, subjugation, sexual vulnerability, patriarchal exploitation: i.e. generally second class social and economic status, involving social control, coercion, even rejection and murder.
• Unlike ‘son’, the identity ‘daughter’ carries with it no inherent or inherited authority or social value. But it does accrue multiple and complex expectations, responsibilities and duties; as well as attendant risks.
• ‘Daughter’ can therefore be seen as the embodiment of subservience to, acquiescence and collusion with hetero-patriarchal male power and dominance, and its institutions and systems.
• To realize / embody our own agency and creativity, girls and women have to break out of this cage, go beyond these given ‘daughterly’ strictures. This is a lifelong project: a process not a single ‘event’.
• This is, in turn, identified as rebelliousness, insubordination, insurrection (or ‘worse’: instability / mental health issues / ‘perversio); these ‘disobediences’ are intensified by collective action by girls and women, which will of course attract the heavy hand of the state / male power, etc., working to get us back in line. We have learned of and witnessed horrifying examples of all of this recently, not just as we look across to other cultures and societies, but here in the UK. So the idea that these attitudes and behaviours are rare and/or ‘one-offs’, the sole province of heterosexual men who are ‘not normal’ / ‘mad’ not bad, no longer bears scrutiny in wider society, as it once did.
• So from the outset, ‘daughter’ carries with it the norm of obedience, quiescence, docility, “best’ expressed via historically influential religious and fundamentalist values, doctrines and attitudes to women. In the wake of the recent revelations of 16 years of sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham, the NW Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and the C.P.S’s lead on child sexual abuse, Nazir Afzal, says “it is about male power” (in interview with Amelia Gentleman, 03 09 2014, Society Guardian).

“There is no religious basis for the abuse in Rotherham. . . (And) it is not the abusers’ race that defines them. It is their attitude to women that defines them”(Ibid.).

• This misogynist culture in turn requires girls and women to accept social and sexual coercion and violence as a normal and unavoidable feature of lived ‘femininity’ and heterosexual relationships. Disturbing evidence of this among girls and young women now seems to be on the rise, on social media and beyond.
• Therefore, in attempting to identify the roots of girls’ and women’s social and sexual disadvantage and damage (which also infect and undermine economic and political status and prospects), and in this case in the context of whole family approaches to mental health, acknowledgement of these basic forces is important, if we are to contribute to their unravelling, and not just be left continually picking up the pieces, as in the past, dealing with the consequences of this inheritance and its persistent reproduction through upbringing, culture and social organization.
• Despite the social, cultural and political efforts of feminists during the last 40+ years (for example, as activists, academics, community, social and political agents), as a society we have failed sufficiently to examine these contexts and gendered power dynamics. There has been concerted resistance, as heterosexual men in power have defended their territory and historical ‘rights’. As a consequence of this status quo, it is now clear that we have failed all our children. The rolling evidence of the last three years in particular has made this analysis irrefutable. Action is required, change must be contemplated and worked for, based on this ‘new’ evidence and knowledge, widening human rights and social justice to encompass and support victims, including women and children, and including preventative measures.
• The social, professional and political secrecy and incompetence, the disregard, even contempt for victims (seen as the lowest of the low), together with the unacknowledged and unchallenged misogyny that has allowed child victims to suffer in social isolation, private agony and terror over their young lives and into adulthood, can now be accepted as evidence of the vital role gender analysis has to play in removing obstacles to social agency, health and wellbeing; creating a safer, more just and equal society (locally as well as inter/nationally); and ditching the normative binary, masculinity / femininity, in favour of a healthier, more equal, sustainable option.
• As daughter, before and after abuse (usually by a family member), she is a time bomb.
• The day after the meeting, having drafted the above notes, I found myself travelling by train to a cultural event with one of the fantastic women I have been fortunate to get to know over the years of adulthood. She is a fairly new friend, and as we chatted, she started to recount her story of father abuse, and how her mother and brother maintained denial and hostility as a consequence, as did extended family members even years later. She spoke of the long term psychological consequences for herself: as daughter, sister, partner, mother. Even as friend and colleague.
• I reflected afterwards, that this brave, vibrant, super intelligent, talented, professionally qualified, socially conscientious woman, devoted mother to a son, compassionate and supportive as a friend, responsible as a human being, is evidence that damage may define us, but it does not have to defeat us. (I reckon this applies to most of my women friends actually.)
• And without idealizing women or dismissing men’s capacity for friendship and support, we know that good women-only spaces and feminist-infused relationships are vital to the quality of women’s survival and flourishing. These spaces, relationships (even a quiet corner in a train carriage), and networks, facilitate and nourish our most meaningful exchanges and conversations. Our wildest laughter, our sense of mutuality, and our continuing commitment to the feminist project.

Postscript:
In addition to the local and national work of Nazir Afzal over a number of years, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (2008-2013), Sir Keir Starmer, QC, when in office, started to effect changes relevant to the treatment and experience of victims, and is currently advising the Labour Party on developing the first ever Victims’ Law, which a Labour government would promote in
2015. Keir Starmer has also put himself forward to stand at the next election as a Labour candidate. This is double good news!

Meanwhile, the UK Labour Party has created a new post, appointing Seema Malhotra as Shadow Minister for preventing violence against women (09 09 2014, interview with Emine Saner, ‘Sex education should start at Key Stage 1’. G2 Guardian). The role means she will be working alongside the police and crime commissioner, Vera Baird (LP), and the trade unionist, Diana Holland, on Labour’s women’s safety commission, “to make sure the prevention of violence against women is on the agenda across multiple departments” (ibid.). I don’t know anything about Malhotra, beyond this interview, but Vera Baird (PCC in Cumbria) and Diane Holland are substantial political figures with good track records, and long-term feminist activists. This has to be more good news!

The ground is shifting nationally, and we must take heart and help it shift locally.

val walsh / 10 09 2014

Available Options

If it had been clear
there were no options
but to conform: to be
sexually available and
compliant. Obliging, at
the expense of my sanity,
well-being, career.

If I had realised that
I had to act docile. Girl
treated as child; woman
disguised as girl. Hours
spent every day, preparing
the body for display, my
mind for instruction.

If I had guessed that
education would query
suitability and acceptance.
That speaking would be
seen as aberrant behaviour.
Unruly and rebellious.

If I had known there
was a name for what I
would face as a woman
seeking liberty to be herself.
That misogyny would aim
to rule out my possibilities.

If, as a girl, I had faced the
daily onslaught of sex and
violence, packaged as culture,
news, while sisters succumbed,
disappeared behind closed doors.
Were deleted from the streets.

How would I have shaped up
for battle and survival?

Would I have caved in, stripped off,
strutted my stuff to get noticed?

Acted ‘sexy’.

How could I have assumed
I would have rights and opportunities?

Desires of my own.

That, as a woman, I might be equal
before the law. Allowed at times, to
roam as free as any élite man.

If I had been trained to be fearful,
while awaiting male approval;
forced to be as dainty and quiet
as possible: respecting the status quo.

If I had been taught that my value
was proscribed as sexual and
procreative. A double fetish. That
these limits would circumscribe life
and feeling. Render my body and
its movements targets for profit,
exploitation, surveillance.

How could I have aspired to be a
person, as well as daughter?
Human as well as woman.
Citizen as well as mother.

How could I have asked my first question?
And, without flinching, looked you in the eye.

For an answering music.

 

val walsh / 2007

 

 

 

 

 

LIVERPOOL X: On the day and on reflection.

Having posted ‘Liverpool X: meditation on an invitation’ (19 11 2013, togetherfornow.wordpress.com) the night before the event, I turned up early the following morning at the main venue, Camp and Furnace.

The theme of the opening session was: Who are we and what makes us different? The plenary speaker was followed by a panel discussion. Contributions (questions, comments, etc.) were then invited from the floor. I thought it was important to raise the questions of the programming, participation, representation and ‘gender balance’ (as it was later referred to) as early in the day as possible. I managed to deliver extracts from the aforementioned statement, before encountering hostile audience reactions.

A woman nearby shouted, “We don’t want to hear this!” Then: “I am bored!” A man in the row behind me called out that I should give the mic to someone else. At this point, the Chair, Rob McDonald (Architect and Reader in Architecture at LJMU) felt pressured to ask me to finish quickly/immediately, which I did.

Something was achieved, in that there were subsequent references by panel members in later sessions to the issue of ‘gender balance’ on the panels and in the programming. I doubt this would have happened if I had not brought up the issue early on. For example, Bill Gleeson, the Business Editor at the Liverpool Post, speaking on the panel discussion, ‘What’s Liverpool for?’, recounted how he has attended numerous different functions and meetings over the years, and at all of these 90% of the attendees are white and male. This, he pointed out, is a problem.

Later, I had several friendly and supportive conversations with other attendees. In addition, two of the organisers (a young woman and a young man) approached me separately. They both agreed the issues I had raised were important and seemed pleased that I had spoken up.

I was told that they had tried very very hard to involve more women as speakers, and they mentioned several names as examples. These women had all declined the invitation to participate as plenary speakers. We shared our disappointment in the conversation.

I must admit, this problem had not occurred to me. I had assumed, as per usual, that too few women had been asked in the first place. They said, “there is a societal problem”. But in the light of this information, on reflection the societal problem reveals itself as more complex than at first glance.

Suitability, availability, willingness.
Women’s refusal to participate in a high profile public event is too easily seen along the familiar lines of: “women (or a n other under-represented and/or stigmatised constituency) don’t apply”. They lack the initiative / confidence / talent, etc.; i.e. classic blame the victim, so society needs look no further into the ‘problem’. As a result the ‘problem’ remains incomprehensible and intractable to those in power / in charge, and definitely the ‘fault’ of those lesser ‘refuseniks’.

I feel an echo here of the evident reluctance of BAME individuals in the City, to participate (at all or in any numbers) in events organised by whiteys, or even events organised by a member of their own community, but open to others too (such as Writing on the Wall [WOW] events). Only Slavery Museum events seem to bring them out in numbers. Part of me understands that historically rooted reluctance (but it also makes me sad). Was this, I wondered, also a clue to this Liverpool X situation?

These organisers had mentioned the problem of finding women in the city region who were “at a suitable level” for the event. This felt like another clue. I pointed out that if that is your fixed criterion, you will simply reproduce the existing problem. To break through, you have to get outside the box marked ‘at the top’, i.e. prominent public position / power / status, and agree a more qualitative basis for those invitations.

For example, artists (especially women artists still) as practitioners, are unlikely to occupy those high status, conventional power positions, and be running organisations (as opposed to projects), yet they may be among the most creative and productive members of local communities, artistic or otherwise.

This will also apply to other constituencies, such as BAME individuals. I later drew attention to the lack of BAME participants (on the panels or in the audience), as another indication of the event’s limitations, in particular when talking about ‘everybody’ and presuming to speak in terms of ‘we’.

As it happened, two women artists spoke from the floor in later sessions. I know them both and I have followed their artistic and community practices for many years. I am both friend and fan.

Nina Edge and Jean Grant both have long track records working in the city (and elsewhere) within and with communities, in addition to their gallery work. Both have the ability to communicate orally with diverse audiences; both are politically conscious human beings / citizens, equality-aware, creative initiators. It occurred to me that each could have given an original, thought-provoking, insightful and relevant panel presentation or plenary. They are experienced workshop facilitators and conference presenters beyond Liverpool, including Europe and the US.

But they are women artists, and while they show no slowdown in their creativity and commitment, they are no longer young. And Nina is (I quote her) “dark” (being of mixed heritage). In this conventional, male-dominated culture, apparently insensitive to issues raised by sexism and gender differentials, ethnicity and racism, and/or ageism, these two talented women may therefore be identified as low status, marginal. An outrage! And although they have both lived in Liverpool for many years, and brought up their offspring here, they are not ‘born and bred’ Liverpudlians, this being a significant, publicly claimed identity in the City, not least in the spheres that framed and underpinned this particular event: the arts, culture, creativity, media, politics, and business.

I thought about the women mentioned by the organisers, who had been invited and declined. All ‘originals’, having set up and developed hugely successful and original organisations, projects and businesses. Like Nina and Jean, women who are creative, community-minded, equality-aware, as well as hugely talented in their fields.

These refuseniks have, in their different ways, created new interfaces with Liverpool as a City and its communities, and they have done it in the face of and in spite dominant prejudices (racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia / lesbophobia). Their work has opened up new intellectual, psychological and cultural spaces, as well as organisational and business opportunities. Significantly, their style of working privileges team playing, collaboration, collectivity, etc..

These are women with flair, whose leadership is not just functionally significant, but fosters the talents and opportunities of others in and beyond their own immediate sphere of influence, thereby subtly helping to shift the culture of this still male-dominated city. But perhaps that’s another clue. They have been transforming now / creating the ‘not now’ (to use Roger Hill’s nice term for the future on the first panel discussion) for a good few years. And without interference from men, as any men involved are already part of the social and cultural transformation these women have helped engender / the not now.

Institutional disadvantage, overload, misogyny.
Women in general are time poor (as well as being poorer than their male counterparts, for example because we have not yet achieved ‘equal pay’ in many sectors). Women work multiple shifts (with or without offspring and/or dependents, and/or partners); routinely multi-task across the boundaries of un/paid work / voluntary work / community involvement / families / relationships / careers / campaigns, etc.. Women are much less likely than their male counterparts to have ‘staff’: wives / partners / PAs / assistants / chauffeurs, cleaning or childcare support, etc., to alleviate the multitasking complexity of leadership / co-creativity / domestic partnership / caring / parenting, etc., so obstacles to participating beyond the ‘normal workload’ go beyond time, labour and the diary. (The latter was mentioned by the organisers as an explanation for women’s non participation.)

But the problem of women’s ‘invisibility’ at the top table is not just the problem of numbers: i.e. not enough ‘senior’ / powerful women, etc. to choose from. It’s the problem of cultures: in communities, in workplaces, in organisations, businesses, trade unions, universities, in the City Council, that discourage, disempower, intimidate and undermine women.[i] The experiential reality for women can be as unrewarding, isolating and grim in the conventional workplace, as in the conventional home, if these are environments untouched by equality awareness and feminist values.

At worst, misogynist cultures destabilize and damage, so that women withdraw, pull out, run off (or hunker down, deteriorate and worse). For there is no academic or professional qualification (other than a women’s studies course) that can prepare women for these hostile environments; that can sufficiently equip the girl or woman for the sexual harassment, sustained misogyny and spite[ii] (however it gets dressed up, even in a frock).

And the 30+ years of neoliberalism have intensified this problem, by divorcing social mobility and economic advancement from feminist values; by promoting individualism and competitiveness; by objectifying bodies and commodifying sex as instrumental public performance and spectacle. All at the expense of girls’ and women’s (mental) health and well being, quite apart from our self determination, creative agency and courage.

Nancy Fraser, long term American feminist, has drawn attention to the problem of neoliberalism, not just for women, but its affects on feminist positions. She fears that

“the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-  market society. Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms”.[iii]

And she returns her readers to the goal of severing

“the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice”. [iv]

The burgeoning across the City of Liverpool of activist groups and community actions in the face of the current ConDem government’s onslaught on the very fabric of our society, indicates a level of local awareness of Fraser’s call to action: that participatory democracy is fundamental to community, recovery and social justice.

Meanwhile, Melissa Kite, contributing editor of the Spectator, urges women MPs, faced with a working environment many describe as “unbearable”[v], not to run away from the problem, but to “man up”.[vi]  Faced with male politicians whose behaviour is described as often “childish and offensive”, she bemoans the fact that “female politicians don’t seem to know how to handle them”, implicitly blaming women for their lack of ‘expertise’ in coping with what might more accurately be described as much worse than “childish and offensive” behaviour. (See my observations above and footnote 2 below.)

Sarah Stennett, amongst other things, the boss of Turn First Artists, an organization that supports and manages artists in the music industry, is “a successful woman in a sexist business”.[vii]  Sony Records Chair, Rob Stringer, describes Turn First Artists as “the alpha-female music company”.[viii] Stennett is well aware of the difficulties the industry presents for women: “In this business, sexism is rife”.[ix]  She “adds cautiously” that it is no worse than any others.[x]  And, confirming Gleeson’s observation at Liverpool X (cited above), states:

“Once you get into the higher echelons of any business, women are absent.”[xi]

Re-watching BBC4’s Queens of Rock,[xii] the early footage of Marianne Faithfull and Dusty Springfield provides evidence of how the music industry and society treated, shaped and exploited these singers in the early stages of their careers: as girlie / ‘sexy’ / dolls, meant to epitomize full-on (heterosexual) “femininity”. And retrospectively, we (and they) have asked: At what cost? Both women came to take control of their identities, selves, careers, and as older women have created barnstorming creative legacies, shaped by their talent and knowledge as musicians, as well as their intelligence and experience as women (including grief and disarray along the way). Not to mention the stamina required for their journeys.

Beyond mono-culture: creativity, diversity, equality.
To return to the Liverpool X event: perhaps it was, rightly, identified as a men’s project, not just because of the percentage of men involved from the off, but because its familiar language, themes and pre-occupations (re. being edgy, radical, different, progressive) are those of Liverpool men involved in the arts, media, culture, politics, who count themselves as edgy, radical, different, etc..

And there may be generational factors too, as some of these men hark back to earlier, more ‘radical’, more ‘subversive’ times. So nostalgia may also have played its part in the emphasis in 2013 on “What shall we tell the world about ourselves that’s relevant and original?”[xiii] Sounds a bit parent/child to me: a plea for approval from big daddy. . . ?

But between 10 00 and c17 00, when I left, (5 hours before the last session), there was little sign of caring about the internal, more local conversation, across the city region, between different locales, communities, constituencies, interest groups: the conversations and actions that forge, bind and sustain us as a mini-society, a distinctive community that embodies a sense of belonging and relevance beyond both historical differences, divisions and power differentials, as well as the various newly established ‘Quarters’ of our increasingly tourist-oriented city centre.

Perhaps too, the conference format itself, with ‘star’ / celebrity plenary speakers and panels of ‘experts’, is the wrong shaped bottle for any new cultural and political wine? Too hierarchical, too monocultural, too conventional, and seriously undernourished by the diversity of the City itself.

Sarah Stennett (who grew up in Liverpool), stating the obvious (but no less important for that) observes, in relation to her own professional roles: “People fulfill their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported”.[xiv]  And it seems that increasingly women realize that that supportive, creative environment is to be found with (mainly) other women, for example, in feminist-inspired women’s groups, organisations, projects.

Stennett’s words leave us asking why would any woman choose to enter a working environment she knows will throw rocks in her path because she is a woman? At the same time, we do not want to vacate major fields of professional, community and artistic involvement, and leave men in control. If a woman has a choice of something better, she will surely steer clear of non-facilitative, undermining work environments, where she cannot be herself or fulfill her potential. If she does not have that choice (and most do not), then she needs around her as many supportive sisters and pro-feminist men as possible, to help her ride the storm of life, work, career, etc.. To be relevant, and part of the solution, Liverpool X needs to address some of these issues in any future events.

val walsh / 04 12 2013


[i] See ‘Sexism in activism. What’s the problem?’ (10 10 2013) and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’  (14 10 2012) In essays section, togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[ii] See Louise Morley (1999) Organising Feminisms: The Micropolitics of the Academy. Basingstoke & London: Macmillan Press.
[iii] Nancy Fraser (14 10 2013) ‘How women became the architects of neoliberalism.’ The Guardian. And Fraser (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Verso Books.
[iv] Fraser (14 10 2013).
[v] Cited Melissa kite (29 11 2013) Man up, women MPs’. The Guardian.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] Caroline Sullivan (02 12 2013) ‘Interview. Sarah Stennett. It’s a very scary business for solo artists.’ The Guardian.
[viii] Ibid..
[ix] Ibid..
[x] Ibid..
[xi] Ibid..
[xii] 29 11 2013.
[xiii] See Liverpool X programme notes.
[xiv] Stennett, ibid..

end