This article was first posted on LabourList on International Women’s Day, but I thought it could do with a second airing here:
Let’s try a little group experiment. Take a recent film you’ve seen, and ask yourself three things – does it have more than two women in it; talking to one another; about something other than men? Our latest gilded export, The King’s Speech, fails this test. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad film – as the awards might attest – but it makes plain a falsehood: that women are less interesting when they open their mouths, than men are.
Yesterday morning, I wondered if you could try something similar with the media. I will posit the following three rules: are there more than two women; offering their opinions; about anything other than domesticity and childcare? The Today Programme was to be my lab rat of choice and so I sat, increasingly boggle eared, as no less than 20 minutes of primetime airwaves went out without a single female voice. Not one. In fact, no woman even got a name-check. What could they have been discussing for so long that precluded women from offering their insight? The willy-waving worlds of business and sport, of course. Yet women aren’t just voiceless on these topics; every single day, across multiple channels and various topics, women are conspicuous in their absence. And when they are asked to comment, overwhelmingly it’s in response to issues which implicitly place their vaginas front and centre of their brains. Too often are women viewed as a minority with extra-special needs and interests, and too often are only women left pointing out the flaw in this logic.
On this very day, exactly one hundred years ago, over a million people attended rallies all over the world, pointing out the very same thing. They were calling for women’s rights to things I consider to be breathtakingly basic, such as the right to work, vote, be trained and educated, to hold public office and see an end to gender discrimination. From that moment on, the world witnessed irreversible expressions of human endeavour – some positive, some destructive – but on every single one of the points that took people to streets in 1911, we are still fighting. We sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to earth, but we still do not have the universal right for women to go to school. International Women’s Day and it’s Centenary is a celebration of what has been achieved, and a reminder of how far we have left to go – not just in the developing world, but in our own back yard too.
You see, the Today Programme is the thin end of a wedge, and it’s one that two million people set their agendas by every morning. Aside from sacking women over the age of 40, the BBC is usually tethered at the more respectable end of misogyny. Way down at the other end, it is a dark place predicated on hate and deliberate errors peddled by British tabloids. Despite this, there remains a quiet and corrosive belief that gender equality has been met. As if, by virtue of the fact that some women work, and some women talk about the economy, and some women decide when to have children, and some women play sport, we’ve closed the door on sexism in this country. Women in Britain will keep experiencing inequality, and men will continue to tell them it doesn’t exist any more. The reality does not meet the legality. This is the problem that will not go away.
Of all the major British political parties, Labour understands this conflict more than any other. Despite the losses in May 2010, it remains the case that Labour has more female MPs than all the other parties combined, and with an active taskforce headed up by dynamic women connected to networks across the country, Labour continues to do more for women in parliament, and for women everywhere, than I care to credit the Coalition with. However – and this is a big however – it’s not working.
Take the Commons as a case in point – we’ve been talking about an enforceable 50/50 gender split for longer than I can remember, but it’s more likely that we will have sent a man to Mars and returned him safely to earth before Westminster is proportionately representative of the people it claims to serve. Equality is still so tantalisingly far away, that I’m referring to successes in lightyears.
So on this International Women’s Day, I am asking for just one thing: that men stop feigning ignorance and speak out on inequality too. The very heritage of IWD demands it – remember that as early as 1907 Labour MPs such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Harold Lanski were using their public profile to speak out for women. The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was formed not long after, attracting a vast array of Ministers, church leaders, army officials, academics and popular writers like EM Forster, Thomas Hardy and HG Wells. The Pankhursts didn’t do it on their own; votes for women was achieved thanks to a collective voice that brought women and men together.
Men have every right to call themselves feminists, as do women. Feminism rests on a set of beliefs which are not biologically predetermined, but present thoughts and actions which battle inequality between the sexes. Many men comfortably use this term without batting an eyelid, like Bill Bailey, the self-styled comedy troll who brought the ‘skullet’ into modern parlance. He has, as they say, bought the t-shirt. But men don’t have to wave a placard to make a difference, they just need to speak alongside and in support of women, for no reason other than the fact that prejudice – of any sort – is wrong.
I’ve said this so many times now, it reads like a rap sheet, but today – of all days – it’s important to remember the facts about the female experience in the UK: Women still earn on average less than 16% than their male peers, which is the equivalent of not being paid from October until the end of the year; only 12% of executive directors of the UK’s top 100 companies are women; women are significantly more likely to live in poverty and experience mental health problems, than men; every single year, 3 million women suffer rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence, and more than two a week will die at the hands of a male partner. Shall I go on? Do you now believe that gender inequality is real and urgent? Do you now see how it makes the world a lesser place, not just for women but for men too? If so, will you stand up and say so? Don’t be complicit in prejudice because you don’t say or do anything to challenge it when it happens. Surely, that is the very worst of being human.
Yesterday, Ed Miliband launched a new Labour group on international women’s rights, with Cherie Blair at the helm. This is important stuff, but it falls foul of the same mistake I see time and time again: the assumption that only women can fight for women. I’m tired of being given special rooms at conferences, and women’s only panel debates, and themed events and all-female taskforces and female spokespeople, so that we may busily occupy ourselves with our womb-centric concerns and leave the important decisions to be made by men. Real change, Ed, will come when Labour stops carving out separate spaces for the sexes and brings women into the main debate. Only then will the Today Programme ask women for their opinions on all manner of topics, will the pay gap shorten, will gendered violence become unacceptable, and will women secure leadership positions in every sector.
If in doubt, remember this riddle: A father runs into A&E with his son, who has fallen off his skateboard and broken his leg in three places. The nurse decides the break is serious and asks the doctor to examine him immediately. The doctor takes one look at the boy and cries out ‘This is my son!’. How can this be the case? Because the doctor is his mother. From this International Women’s Day onwards, it is our responsibility to change preconceptions about the role of women in this very modern, very capable country. Before we colonise Mars.