The Young Fabians Ideas Series seeks to pin down the principles that Labour should adopt on a number of "-isms". Some of these, such as internationalism, have been an established part of the dialogue across the left for a long time. Others, such as patriotism, are already high on the agenda of topics Labour needs to address in order to win elections in challenging times.
Feminism, however, seems to have had less of a hearing. The word itself is sometimes reluctantly used, possibly for fear of alienating those who have a negative image of feminism as 'bra burning'. A related issue is the assumption that, in terms of women’s rights, society is moving steadily forward, and that invoking the language of ‘feminism’ can therefore serve as an alienating hindrance to equality, rather than a means of achieving it.
At the launch of the Young Fabians' Feminism project, we set about exploring why this might be and what we can do to give women an equal stake, with the help of two impressive and progressive women: Kirsty McNeill, Labour Women's Network board member and former Number 10 advisor; and Reni Eddo-Lodge, freelance feminist writer and contributing editor of Feminist Times.
Three main themes emerged from the session.
The first was the need to acknowledge that different women want different things from what many in the room understand as ‘feminism’. Part of the reason that we often shy away from using the 'F-word' is that many women do not identify with it. For example, they may not wish to be associated with some of the battles that have recently won high-profile media attention under a ‘feminist’ banner, such as campaigns to end Page 3 or ensure that women appear on bank notes.
Reni Eddo-Lodge gave a passionate and personal account of her reasons for being a feminist. This focused on the critical concept of 'intersectionality': the idea that multiple oppressions are at work on people in society, and that the status and needs of a black or disabled woman may be different to those of white, straight women (who have historically had louder voices in discussions about feminism and its purposes). She asked us to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that lead to some feminists misunderstanding others, and to push for making the world adjust to women's needs, rather than the other way around.
While Reni stressed the importance of acknowledging how oppression is configured differently across racial, class and gender categories, Kirsty McNeill took up the argument that the right to be economically independent and financially prosperous is central to all women’s lived experiences. To this end, Kirsty made the point that we should celebrate the women who fought for the right to work and keep their earnings as much as we laud the achievements of the suffragettes.
All of this feeds into the third theme. Strategic electoral concerns must be of key importance to Labour's One Nation vision. Polling shows that women are already broadly supportive of the Labour party, but we also need the votes of men to win in 2015. Counterintuitively for a project on feminism, Kirsty suggested that we need to talk about men, advocating a progressive masculinity which addresses the decline of industrial jobs and traditional male identity.
As thoughtful and informed questions from the audience demonstrated, there is a wealth of issues and divergent opinions still to work through to establish what One Nation feminism could look like. We will continue to build on these discussions as the project moves forward, and would be delighted to hear from members who want to contribute to our working group.