Louise Mensch has very little in common with radical feminists. That’s not a particularly startling assertion, and many waited excitedly to watch Laurie Penny thrash out the argument that, of course, the right wing fails to adequately embrace any real feminist ideas. ‘Tory feminism’, as Mensch oxymoronically termed it, in an article during which she controversially pledged the claim feminism back from ‘the ghetto’ can barely be called a feminist movement at all, especially against the backdrop of Mensch’s fellow female Tory ministers peppering the abortion debate with moralistically anti-feminist rhetoric, slashing provisions for the most vulnerable women in the country, at best in half and at worse to nothing, and throwing to the wind decades of struggle for progress in women’s sexual, reproductive and general health provision.
While Mensch smugly chastised Penny for failing to recognise that a Conservative government extended the vote to women in 1928, that the first female elected to Parliament was a Tory Minister, and that the Conservative Woman’s Association was the first political women’s organisation in the world, she herself illuminated her own shortcomings. Does it matter that by 1928 most European women had already been voting for at least a decade already, outside of Britain? Does it matter that the first woman actually elected refused to take her seat because she was a revolutionary republican that wouldn’t swear an oath to the British Crown? Does it matter that the Suffragettes were formed over twenty years before the Conservative Woman’s Association? Does the factual glossing over of reality in Louise Mensch’s statements matter? Of course it does, because it viciously dismantles the notion that the right can lay any claim to the great gains made by the feminist movement. Giving a woman a title that allows her free reign over the oppressed isn’t about feminism, it isn’t about equality, it’s just about power.
So what else is Mensch throwing into her skewed analysis of women’s liberation? She may not have had time to fully outline the criteria of ‘Tory Feminism’ as she battled with Laurie Penny to win women everywhere over to her camp, but she certainly made a few striking remarks in the Guardian article that warranted her a platform with Penny. She didn’t share with us exactly what she meant by ‘ghetto feminism’ (and who she thus wished to reclaim feminism from) – perhaps Mensch was alluding to working class women or women of colour and doesn’t want them tarnishing the name of her good, clean, white, middle-class Tory feminism. That’s not the only issue that Mensch covered in her controversial article that she chose not to air on Newsnight. She also didn’t share with us that she thought David Cameron’s now infamous ‘calm down dear’ was a valid a satirisation (and by the way, as long as you’re joking, everything is fair game) of a car insurance advert that I certainly haven’t seen for a number of years. Better yet, she didn’t share with us her view that one of the primary concerns of women in a struggling economy is passing debt onto their children, and I don’t really need to mention here, that if you’re still suggesting a woman’s primary role in society not only should be, but actually is that of a mother, then are you really any kind of feminist at all?
However, the most pertinent point that Mensch made in her article was a flippant remark about Labour peer, Sir Alan Sugar, who she bashes for his attitude to women in the work place. This, she supposes is case in point: it’s not the Tories that have a bad attitude to women, but Labour millionaires, and thus entirely, the point of radical liberation has been missed, because it’s not about what colour your rosette is, because it’s not about whether you openly defend the wealthiest people in society (or in this case, openly are the wealthiest people in society), it’s about the social power that is at your disposal, simply put, while Sugar may well be a Labour peer, he’s still playing for the same team as the man she calls the ‘most feminist’ leader her party has ever seen: David Cameron. Because, as an aside, Louise Mensch, most radical feminists don’t see all that much difference between the two of them – the dividing line isn’t which particular party you choose to oppress under, it’s which side of the oppressor or oppressed divide you, and your gross fortune, happens to topple onto.
It is the very dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed that renders ‘Tory feminism’ an oxymoronic nonsense. Without an understanding, acceptance and analysis of class in oppression, it simply has not been understood. For example, the victories of the Suffragettes, which Mensch so passionately laid claim to, were formed of an alliance between the masses of female workers in the cotton mills, and educated middle class women. In fact, they were such a radicalising force that they turned to revolutionary tactics to get noticed, smashing windows, arson and resisting arrest. If at this point you’re silently reaffirming whether or not it was the Conservative party that spent November 2010 and August 2011 condemning smashed windows, burned buildings and lack of police authority, then yes, it was, and yes, it was back in the early Twentieth Century too. That’s another one that Louise Mensch failed to square. The suffragettes also campaigned for more than extending the franchise to women: they didn’t just want basic rights for themselves; they wanted them for workers too. Many wings of the suffragette movement campaigned for the vote for working class men, at a time when only those with property could vote. As is common in systems of oppression, the oppressed find solidarity with oppressed. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Sylvia Pankhurst, well educated daughter of a doctor, from a comfortable background, changed the title of the radical feminist paper The Woman’s Dreadnought, to The Worker’s Dreadnought, abandoned liberalism for radical communism, defied her mother and sisters in opposing the imperialist ‘Great War’, and proposed the radical ideas of ‘Household Soviets’ to dramatically restructure the role of women in the traditional family unit. Perhaps, Mensch, the struggle is, and was, about a little more than voting.
So, how can Tory feminism really be termed feminism? Feminism is the fight for liberation, and conservatism is the dogmatic refusal of progress from the status quo. The Blog ‘Feminism for Tories’ describes feminism as “the struggle for a women to be recognised as a sentient human being, separate from her family and valued as an individual.” Is this a form of feminism, or simply Conservative individualism for women? I don’t know about Mensch, but my rallying cry goes a little further than being recognised as a sentient being. I’m confident that my sisters throughout history have achieved that, and passed me the torch to carry on the liberation struggle, and even if that first hurdle hasn’t been achieved internationally, or even at home, then the race doesn’t end there.
I think therefore, that I can speak for radical feminists, when I say what Louise Mensch and the ‘feminist Right’ talk of isn’t our feminism. It isn’t what we’re fighting for. The Right in the UK have given women, or specifically, a woman, the reigns of power before, and it didn’t achieve feminism. No true feminist fights just for women. Feminism is about opposing oppression – all oppression. So, to rely on a popular cliché: if you’re dissing the sisters, you ain’t fighting the power, but even if you are one of the sisters, and you’re smashing the trade unions, privatising industry, selling off council houses, initiating military aggression and lightening taxation on the rich, then you aren’t really fighting it either.
by Ellen Tansey