State feminism: co-opting women’s voices

Feminism is being used by some states as a political proxy to gloss over economic policies that hurt women, meanwhile, grass roots women’s rights activism is looking for new ways to reach parliament. Jennifer Allsopp reports from UK Feminista Summer School 2012

Lately, one might be fooled into thinking that feminism has had a revival in mainstream British politics. We are told that Prime Minister David Cameron is the “most feminist leader the Conservative party has ever had” and a new generation of ‘feminist Tories’ is on the rise. They are out to rescue left wing feminists from their post-capitalist ‘utopias’ with a healthy dose of pragmatism; they want to ‘convert’ us and make us realise that we need to settle for “achievable small changes within a flawed system rather than holding out for revolutionary dreams”. The Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government is using this free-market feminism to justify economic policies that hurt women. In this respect it can be seen as a form of ‘state feminism’ – a feminism sanctioned by the state. This state feminism is not to be confused with the all too absent feminisation of the British state.

Judging by the response of 300 participants at a Summer School held in Bristol this weekend by UK Feminista, a national grass-roots “movement of ordinary men and women campaigning for gender equality”, many remain unconvinced by the current government’s commitment to women’s rights. The number of feminist activist groups has doubled since the coalition came to power in 2010 and many feminists are becoming explicitly radicalised by the frustrations wrought by austerity policies, attacks on women’s reproductive rights and the increasing objectification of women’s bodies; they are turning to alternative and creative means to influence change. Whilst this is something to celebrate, it also reveals a crisis in British politics. The government appears to be breaking political trust between the state and women, putting many feminists off politics with a capital P.

Women's equality activists outside parliament with banners on a protest with UK Feminista. Women's equality activists outside parliament. Photo: UK Feminista.

Internationally, women’s rights campaigners have been at the forefront of lobbying governments against austerity measures and proposing feminist alternatives. In a panel discussion on ‘How to create a feminist economy’ at this week’s Summer School, Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network (SPAN) explained why: “we are seeing a return to economic patriarchy; the worst of times”. In the UK, women of all ages are being disproportionately affected by economic policies which they have had little say in shaping. Following David Cameron’s recent reshuffle earlier this month, the Treasury is now without a single female minister for the first time in 16 years at a time when it is dealing with the biggest economic recession since the Second World War. Joanne Kaye of the public service trade union UNISON explained how in this context the invisible care economy is being totally ignored; women’s rights are being looked at largely in terms of economic productivity, as if it were simply a question of reducing the deficit by getting “more women into work”. Single parents are now classified as ‘adult workers’ not ‘parent workers’ in Britain once their children turn 5, meanwhile the cost of childcare continues to soar and there remain huge obstacles to flexible working: “the result”, says Sue, “is a return to the male breadwinner model”. Sonia Mitralia from the Initiative of Greek Women Against the Debt and Austerity Measures explained a similar conservative shift in Greece, where 60% of young women are unemployed.

Panels at the Summer School on ‘How to build a diverse feminist movement’ and ‘Feminists take on the global economy’ revealed how the co-option of women’s rights into the economic priorities of states is not unique to anti-austerity politics in Europe but has the effect of damaging women the world over. Kalpana Wilson from the South Asia Solidarity Network explained how land grabs in India have a disproportionate effect on women’s livelihoods, meanwhile measures which seek to empower women through economic entrepreneurship often instrumentalise and reify gender binaries. She cited one official involved in running microcredit self-help groups in Gudjarat: “women can be located easily…they cannot run away, leaving their homes; they can be persuaded to repay more easily as they feel shame more quickly and consider non repayment a matter of family honour”. As in the UK, much of the discourse around women’s economic empowerment in developing economies is not simply about the fact that ignoring half of the potential workforce is against the principles of productivity; it is dependent on the idea that women will work harder. Women are seen as “empowered, enterprising and with infinite resilience”. 

The feminism of most of the activists I met at the UK Feminista Summer School bears little resemblance to this free-market feminism currently in vogue in Westminster and promoted by financial institutions around the world. Indeed, many participants explained their activism as a counter force to this ‘state feminism’ which they see as capitalist and intrinsically anti-feminist: “state feminism is the feminism they create for us” said one participant, “a political proxy for real change”. Other participants felt that it was unhelpful for governments to talk of feminism at all. Given their commitment to capitalist definitions of progress, can states ever truly be feminist? Is state feminism not a form of co-option? A failure to engage with the plurality of women’s voices in society through the imposition of a monolithic definition of what women want?

The idea of ‘state feminism’, with its glossing of policies that hurt women, goes some way in helping us to understand the oppression of feminist movements that challenge states’ neoliberal ideology of progress. Alternative means to advance women’s rights are seen as a direct threat to the economic priorities of the government. In India, for example, the introduction of militarised SEZ (Special Economic Zones) creates a space of exception where “the government is giving all possible advantages to companies at the expense of human rights”. Summer School participants were moved as Kapana spoke of a woman called Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh, India who has been detained and tortured on the grounds of sedition and violence against the state. Her crime has been to speak out against land grabs and police bribes and their effect on women; “the imprisonment”, Kapana explained, “is happening in the name of economic growth”.

Discussions with direct action groups such as UK Uncut at the Summer School suggest that we are seeing an increasing intolerance of opposition to government policies in Britain, with tactics employed by the state including violence and humiliation. One feminist activist told me that after participating in a peaceful demonstration against austerity she was arrested, and had her bra confiscated for 6 months. A fellow feminist activist was detained overnight, during which time she was denied permission to use her own tampon.

The UK Feminista Summer School made me realise the real challenges many feminists fight, both abroad and also in the UK. Speaking up for women’s rights can lead to stigmatisation, bullying and ridicule. In a consciousness raising workshop on the first day of the Summer School, participants were invited to reflect on what being a feminist feels like. For many the experience was a fusion of positive and negative experiences: “power, liberation, honesty, hope, respect, reassuring, trying to live as a whole person and fighting for the means to control that, … isolated, exhausting, lonely, belittled, on the outside, all-consuming (bad), in everyday life I still feel my views are extreme”. A 17 year old student who has recently founded a feminist group at her school told me how a boy in her class had said he would ‘spank her ass’ to bring her back down to earth after she’d returned from her feminist Summer School. We are regularly reminded that women face the same kind of ridicule by politicians: for their Indian dancing, “frustration” and for not ‘calming down dear’. The fact is that many women simply cannot relate to those in power; they don’t feel that they are “on our side” and they don’t feel like they are being listened to. State feminism remains completely unworkable in the UK for many reasons, but the bottom line is that women haven’t even been involved in the creation of the policy for which it provides the smokescreen.

Discussions during the Summer School suggest that this lack of involvement is leading to the disengagement of many feminists in politics at many levels. Several participants told me they do not vote, with one 20 year old activist qualifying this by explaining that “the problem with politics is that it is a constraining environment”. Another added, “the people at the top just don’t get it”. A session on ‘Parliament, politicians and persuasion…reaching MPs and influencing government’ on the Sunday afternoon did little to change this preconception. It was a language class on ‘how to talk to Tories’ in which we were taught the mantras “it’s better to tweak what’s there than try to overthrow it” and “how can we make do?” When lobbying Tories we were reminded to make sure that “there is no suggestion that this is in any way radical”. Young women and men are expected to appeal to the state feminism articulated by those in positions of power. This has the effect of silencing critiques of the government’s economic agenda which are dismissed as hopelessly utopian.

This situation raises a crucial question about the accessibility of politics in the present context, both in terms of lobbying or direct participation. Modern feminists recognise that the fact of political power is far from sufficient grounds for political legitimacy; among other elements, a key component of such legitimacy comes from experience. A key safeguard against the hegemony of state feminism in this context is to have a plurality of women in government, and in order to make this happen we need a culture change in politics. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party recognised this on International Women’s Day when he said, “there are far too few women who feel attracted to politics. … we in politics have a particular duty to show that we are prepared to change.”

Campaigns which seek to enhance women’s representation, such as Women into Politics by the WEA and the Fawcett Society’s ‘Counting Women In’ are a good place to start, but politicians should be doing more. The UK is ranked 50th out of 188 countries in the national league of women’s representation in Parliament, and 12th out of 27 in the EU. Cameron’s new cabinet, where men outnumber women 5 to 1 simply won’t do: “enough is enough”.

Through the organisation of a Feminist Lobby of Parliament on October 24th, UK Feminista hopes to “put women’s equality at the top of the political agenda”. If politicians are serious about increasing women’s voice in Parliament they should take the opportunity to meet with the those who attend; they should take the time to listen. Meanwhile, women will continue to carve out new forms of the ‘political’ on the ground.

About the author

Jennifer Allsopp is a regular contributor to openDemocracy 50.50, writing predominantly on migration, politics and women's rights. She is also Editor of the site's People on the Move migration dialogue. She is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, working on the Asylum Appeals ProjectShe has previously worked at the Institute of Social Policy and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and with a range of refugee and migrant organisations.