Sunday, 8 March 2009

What is a women's issue?

The January issue of Observer Woman magazine included the following articles: - Howard Jacobson on "the brave new world of male beauty", an article on "moobs" and how to get rid of them, Jay Rayner's account of going for a full body wax and a feature on "the life of a male model". This month's includes an article by Phil Hilton on losing his hair. (And if you really want a woman's opinion Phil, you looked much better bald). I suspect you're probably ahead of me on this one....

So what is a woman's issue? And is it helpful to designate issues as such?

Sometimes it seems that the ‘women’s agenda’ revolves around one central concept: women as mothers. (Or rather ‘Mums’). It’s about having babies and bringing up babies, and sometimes about making babies too. And, in the case of most women’s magazines, finding someone who will play a small but not insignificant part in all three.

Another common thread is the idea of ‘women as victims’, with a focus on domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, prostitution and other forms of abuse. Of course these are hugely important issues. But do any of them actually need to be discussed within the silo marked ‘women’s issues?’ Men are affected by infertility, whether it be their own or their partner’s. They are sometimes the victim of domestic violence, and certainly far more likely to be the victim of violence in general. Boys are lured into prostitution, are abused, or get pressured into marriages they don’t want (although admittedly, not often to someone old enough and ugly enough to be their father).

And, perhaps most importantly, men are parents too. I have a case at the moment where a single Dad is trying to persuade his employers to honour his right to request flexible working, so he can juggle work and his childcare responsibilities. I strongly suspect they'd be a lot more accommodating - and his union a lot more supportive - if he was a woman.

On Thursday we had an International Women's Day debate in Parliament. It was on "Women and Families in the Economic Downturn". To be frank, I thought it was wrong to do so. I could perhaps have bought into the idea of a debate on "Women in the Economic Downturn" although it would have been based on what I think is probably a false premise that women will be more badly affected and that the impact on them will be overlooked unless (women?) politicians flag it up as a separate issue.

What struck me as not just wrong but positively dangerous, however, was the twinning of "Women and Families". We have to get away from the idea that families are a "woman's issue". In the same way we need to get away from the idea that teenage pregnancy is a "woman's issue" - but more about that some other time! Is it any wonder that men feel free to walk away from their commitments when the message society is sending out is that you’re not needed, that you’re a bit part player in this family drama?

So my question is: would it be more productive to push what some would call ‘women’s issues’ within the mainstream, rather than labelling them as women’s concerns, which could possibly lead to them being marginalised or give men an excuse to think that it’s not their problem, someone else is taking care of them? Or, indeed, alienate men to the extent that they think no-one is on their side? (Does there have to be sides?)

On Friday I attended a dinner in Bristol of the local BPW branch (Business and Professional Women). On Saturday I popped in at the tail end of an International Women’s Day event in Barton Hill. Many women clearly draw strength from, and enjoy such activities. I’m not going to criticise the idea of sisterhood, or the notion of women-only organisations, although I’ve never felt compelled to join one. After all, plenty of male bonding goes on every week in pubs, sports clubs and football grounds around the UK.

But I often tell people an anecdote of when I'd first got involved in the Labour Party and I realised that one of the two places on the Regional Board had fallen vacant. I asked the Regional Director about standing for it; he suggested I went for the Regional Women's Committee instead. I ignored him, got onto the Board at my first attempt and was elected Vice Chair at my first meeting. It then turned out that the Women's Committee was virtually defunct, hardly ever met, and I was automatically a member anyway by virtue of being on what I henceforth thought of as 'the Boys' Board'. (I should add, this Regional Director thought he was being helpful; he wasn't trying to block me.) The point I’m making here is that sometimes falling into the ‘women’s section’ can hinder rather than help your progress. Again, it’s about being marginalised. Almost – dare I say it – kept in your place? And sometimes other women can be as guilty as men of putting women 'in their place', because they think they need to be in that comfort zone, in the sisterhood, where they can be supported.

Something that accompanies this is what I call the ‘patronising pep talk’ tendency. Women telling other women “yes you can do this, you’re as good as the men”, which only serve to sow the seeds of doubt where previously there was none. And if the feisty young women I see when I visit schools in my constituency are anything to go by, it’s not them who need the encouragement; it’s the boys.

Finally, I also think it's important to sometimes be a little less, well serious, about things. I like Women's Hour. But I like Loose Women too. I love the Devil Wears Prada and America's Next Top Model. I like shopping. I like chocolate. I can recognise Yves St Laurent ‘cage’ shoes when I see them, or a Louboutin red sole. You don’t have to wear sensible shoes to be a feminist! (Especially not when you’re five foot one).

In fact I have – I confess - a subscription to Grazia. The magazine did a survey last year which revealed that although 73% thought things would improve with more women politicians at the helm, 98% of its readers didn’t think that female politicians had anything in common with them. As ever, I missed the opportunity to point out to them at the time that they might be wrong. But I think it shows that sometimes we need to – dare I say it – lighten up a little if we’re to show other women that we’re not so different after all.

P.S. It grieves me to have to say this, but I want to make it quite clear because I know that if I don’t, people with a certain agenda will be only too ready to twist this. This is my contribution to the debate. It is not ‘an attack’ by one Labour MP on other Labour women MPs.


yellowbelly said...

Blimey Kerry, I agree with you on this! Will go for a lie down to recover.

Kerry said...

Now you've got me worried!

Paul said...

Kerry I have spotted a typo in this - you wrote "in comment" instead of "in common". Not like you. Also how do you get rid of moobs?

Kerry said...

A friend of mine had moobs. He made me squeeze them once, which I found rather disturbing. He now gets up at 6am to run five miles a day several times a week, and they've gone. Other than that I'd suggest a Marks and Spencers minimiser bra.

Gen d'Eau said...

Thanks for your wisdom on these issues...really!

Dave H said...

And Good Day to you too Ms M.

Now let the trolling commence.

(First, can I make it clear please that I'm not ignoring your 'P.S.' -I'm attempting to attack both of you equally)

Two quotes from MPs regarding fathers and families. Compare and contrast.

1) “It cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion.”

2) “Is it any wonder that men feel free to walk away from their commitments when the message society is sending out is that you’re not needed, that you’re a bit part player in this family drama?”

The first MP has so deviated from mainstream Party thinking that she has been completely excluded from senior office, apart from Leader of the House of Commons, Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party, Minister for Women, Labour Party Chair, Lord Privy Seal, former (?) Solicitor General, former Minister of State in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, former Secretary of State for Social Security, Future Leader of the Perpetual Opposition, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Shadow Employment Secretary, Shadow Health Secretary, Shadow Social Security Secretary.

The second MP is under the tragic misapprehension that she doesn’t belong to the party for the relentless promotion of misandry. If she thinks that fathers should be assumed to have a role to play in families she is wildly out of step with the highest levels of Government.

Incidentally it may be the delusional paranoid conspiracy theorist nutter in me but a couple of professional media arm twisters did rejoin the team late last year. Tom Harris recently departed from official Labour policy and blogged some common sense too –I hope you have not both been ‘encouraged’ to do this.

To finish O/T with an educational scandal. From your Wiki entry you and I are horribly frighteningly close in chronological age (which to digress calls to mind the words of Traudl Junge on Sophie Scholl –you are Fr. Junge, natch). You will therefore have taken O levels for which you actually had to know stuff. If you didn’t get Biology why not take it now? You simply can’t fail..

Despite your mindless party allegiances I’d be surprised if you don’t find this appalling. It’s worse than just dumbing down, the questions now include a context blatantly pursuing a social agenda. Did the Government plan to do this to education? Was the theory that kids become so thick they can be programmed to vote the ‘correct’ way? In a breif not-Troll bit, how the heck are you ever going to get bright kids from poorer backgrounds into the better universities if all they learn at school is this dross? They would spend much of their time just catching up.

If they only knew about the shameful damage your party is inflicting on the nation’s foundations, far more people would be angry with your lot. Being a Troll on a Labour blog would become a source of civic pride.

Kerry said...

Dave H - is this your bid to win comment of the week 3 times in a row?

Dave H said...

Just the normal routine abuse. Care to address the points? Again:

A) Harriet is instinctively hostile to the role of fatherhood in general. This contradicts you. I have a vague feeling she and P. Hewitt co-autheored a report titled Why All Men Are Evil or similar.

B) 12 years of Labour misrule have played havoc with our education system. Look at the exam. It requires a facile level of technical knowledge and pushes a non subject related agenda. I hope your lot are proud. It will take years to undo the damage you have inflicted.

By ghastly coincidence we are >99.99% the same age. I mentioned this because I know, and as you will know if you look at the paper, that when we took exams at 16 they were far more testing.

Sir Henry Morgan said...

Ms McCarthy

It's that horrible BNP man here again (the one who spent 24 years married to an Asian woman, and whose only child in this world is mixed race. Obviously a racist then ... ).

That post contained an awful lot of good sense. I have to go lie down for a while in a darkened room.

Kerry said...

Oh dear.

DaveA said...

Yellowbelly and Sir Henry you rather have stolen my thunder. Good quality post and very little to quibble with.

Kerry said...

Oh. Dear.

Paul said...

was any mention made in the debate about the great Mr Clegg and his observation that unemployment is good for men because they can spend more time at home with their families. Presumably working out when the house will be repossessed and the family can enjoy some time in temporary accommodation better known as B&B.

Kerry said...

Surely they could just dip into the trust fund? Or ask Daddy to bail them out?

Anonymous said...

"Another common thread is the idea of ‘women as victims’.....ugly enough to be their father)."

That whole paragraph you never bothered once to back it up with any kinds of facts, just your own personal presumptions to fill out your opinion. Do you SERIOUSLY think rape and prostitution of men is anywhere near the level of that of women? Are you oblivious to the much repeated fact that men are more likely to speak out when victims of domestic violence than women?
"(men are) certainly far more likely to be the victim of violence in general."
I don't know what kind of society you're living in, you certainly don't engage in the East Bristol society but that's far too clear anyway, but that's not the world I live in, my mother lives in, my mother in law lives in or even the society my partner lives in or the society my brother lives in.

As an MP for a city that has a lower rape conviction rate than the rest of the country (Bristol is 4.2%, did you even know that?) I find this post further more proof of your distance from the reality of life in Bristol. You barely even talk about Bristol on your blog, why should you extend any sympanthy to it's victims of rape? Not your problem, as you have made clear in this post, as a woman, MP or even as a human being.

Kerry said...

I expected this kind of response from someone. Quick response, as I'm between meetings.

a) You're totally distorting what I said. Of course I didn't say men are as likely to be the victims of rape/ prostitution as women. Although they are sometimes victims of both. My view is that we won't tackle such problems purely by focusing on the victims - we have to look at the perpetrators, and also at wider social/ cultural issues - which can't be looked at without engaging with men and making it an issue for men too.

b) As for facts - it's a blog, not an academic essay.

c) I've asked parl Qs about rape convictions rate in the local area. I asked a question only last week about women victims of crime. How about doing some homework before passing judgement?

d) I blog about Bristol a lot. And there is loads of stuff about Bristol on my website. How about doing some homework, etc...
But I think it's best to use local reference points as a trigger for discussion of wider issues, e.g. tying in visit to the mosque with the Gaza issue. That's what an MP does.

I really can't be bothered to go on. I've seen your blog - it's the sort of thing I used to say when I was 16, used to listen to Crass and draw As in little circles on my schoolbooks. But even then I knew it was a little bit silly.

Kerry said...

Classisms - I'n not posting your response, not least because missing the point once is excusable, but missing it a second time is not. And I thought posting abusive anonymous rants on blogs was a male trait...

Tell you what - how about meeting up with me in Bristol and tell me what you think face to face rather than hiding behind anonymity on a blog? You can bring your friend. I'll tell you what I've been doing on the issues you obviously care so deeply about, and you can tell me what you think, no holds barred.

Call 0117 939 9901 or email me on Genuine offer - I want to meet you.