The recent news that the Fawcett Society has filed papers with the High Court seeking a Judicial Review of the government’s recent emergency budget has buoyed the hearts of families all over the country. Families who sat down with their calculators at the end of Osborne’s speech and worked out just how much they rely on public services, benefits and tax incentives in order to break even every month. More importantly for me, Fawcett’s act is validation that to stimulate positive change in 2010 we don’t always need to revert to hitting the streets with placards, signing a petition, chaining ourselves to political buildings, camping outside Westminster or staging a strike. No, with something as breathtaking as an emergency budget which spelled out billions of pounds worth of cuts, over three-quarters of which are estimated to be felt directly by women, Fawcett have judged perfectly the right response to an infuriating situation. They calmly and confidently served papers all over the Government’s prejudiced asses. And that’s a language Osborne and Co. understand.
If Fawcett plays this carefully, it will not become a glib footnote in history about the time the Treasury was deemed to be sexist; instead, it will become a whole chapter on the moment when one group of like-minded individuals made plain the inherent inequalities within a budget that was announced, fait accompli, and then changed it for the better for everyone, everywhere. This may start with a female agenda, but as Margaret Mead once said ‘every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man’. We must recongise that this act is not just about speaking for women, but about speaking for people.
So I excitedly await the date of the permission hearing and optimistically imagine a time when we edge closer to making the economic parameters within which this country operates more representative of the people they purport to benefit. However, this week has been a leaden reminder that when it comes to women’s rights – and the infringements thereof – only women seem to be capable of talking about them.
Myth Bust No.1 – feminism is not a female theory, it does not preclude participation by anyone, regardless of sex, orientation, ethnicity or religion. If you believe that deliberate and sustained prejudice against any part of society for ill-informed reasons is unfair, then you are a feminist. Myth Bust No.2 – you do not need to be in possession of a vagina in order to air your feelings about how women are discriminated disproportionately against in comparison to men. In the same way you do not need to be black in order to recognise that racism is unjust; or gay, to perceive the wrongs of homophobia.
So it’s a tired acknowledgement from the feminist ranks that it took a feminist charity operating on thrupence and a lollipop to raise the alarm. But in this instance, I can’t let it go. Why didn’t anyone in the Government pay attention to Theresa May’s letter to the Treasury, which clearly spelled out that not only would the budget hit women hardest, but the delivery of such could be considered illegal? Why didn’t a single man in the Cabinet voice their concerns about what they were voting for? Are there no men in Westminster with daughters, wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers – friends, even – that remind them on a daily basis that the UK is so far from being egalitarian that even Afghanistan has more women in parliament than we do? Are there no men in Westminster who use a variety of state-maintained services, from hospitals, to schools and tax departments, who might – for one fleeting moment – acknowledge that the majority of people who greet them are female? Just look at Unison’s membership as a proof-point that public services are filled with women and battling hard – over two-thirds of their membership is female. Why, why, must it always be women looking out for, and speaking on behalf of, women?
One day I want to open a newspaper to read a comment piece written by a man that reflects on the fact that a male member of parliament has called into question a budget which is unfair and poorly judged, for no reason other than the fact he sees the pure inequality of it. And together with a Cabinet which comprises of equal numbers of male and female MPs, they announce their plans to put in place a new economic recovery plan which is fair for everyone. That doesn’t have to be in the year 2212, or whenever it is we’ve worked out the snail has finished traversing the Great Wall of China and women are equal in Westminster; that can be 2010. It can be now.
And as for this budget, I think the sums are quite simple: Reduce public services, and you take away from women. Take away from women, and you hit families. Hit families, and you destabilise society. Destabilise society? Well, that way madness lies.
Osborne, go back to the beginning, reappraise your findings and have the balls to understand that speaking on behalf of women doesn’t make you less of a man. It might even be the making of you.