Jeremy Corbyn and the myth of the hysterical woman

It is an indictment of the status quo that policies which will benefit women and people of colour are being dismissed as lacking credibility from those inside and outside of the Labour Party.

Che Ramsden
8 September 2015
Labour ballot paper

Labour ballot paperLabour Party members, affiliates and supporters are currently voting in the second leadership election of five years, following defeat in the May 2015 General Election. The original ‘outsider’ candidate, Jeremy Corbyn looks poised to win on Saturday on an anti-austerity platform. As Emily Wight has written for 50.50, this is good news for women, who have borne the burden of austerity on top of that of patriarchy. Austerity measures have also disproportionately impacted Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Despite an overall decrease in unemployment figures, long-term unemployment for BAME youth has risen by 50%. Institutional sexism and racism have been greatly exacerbated.

As his opponents – both within and beyond the Labour Party – seek to deride Corbyn’s policy positions, they use gendered language which tells of a political establishment entrenched in patriarchal traditions. Corbyn’s supporters are commonly described in mainstream media as succumbing to ‘Corbynmania’; as  ‘loony’, ‘idealists’, ‘maniacs’, ‘fantasists’, or led by their hearts rather than their brains (prompting Tony Blair’s intervention:  ‘get a transplant’). These are all terms that have historically been used to disparage women, wrongly based on assumptions about our physicality. Indeed, before the British government granted limited women’s suffrage less than a century ago, anti-suffragists argued that women were ‘emotional’ and therefore incapable of sound decision-making.

Notably, before the General Election this May, Nick Clegg positioned the Liberal Democrats as able to ‘add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’ – thereby ‘feminising’ the Labour Party as a whole. Caring, but not fit for stately affairs. With a different subject, this could have been anti-suffragist propaganda.

As a result of Labour’s electoral defeat, ‘modernisers’ within the Labour Party feel that this characterisation of the party – as brainless - has taken hold among the electorate. They therefore argue that Corbyn lacks ‘credibility’. They prefer an approach which they think will appeal to voters, rather than interrogating how or why certain ideas are deemed ‘rational’ and others not, regardless of their relative merits.

It is an indictment of the status quo that policies which will benefit women and people of colour are dismissed as lacking credibility. Furthermore, when terms like ‘mania’ are used to describe political movements, it is done to discredit the movement in question in a convention which is expressly misogynistic as well as stigmatising of mental health. The language employed reinforces patriarchy, with feminised opinions deemed to be capricious and unintelligent. This contributes to a culture of everyday sexism which perpetuates inequality.

The politics of mania

Use of the suffix ‘mania’ to describe a popular movement was coined first as ‘Lisztomania’ by Heinrich Heine in 1844 to describe the frenzy surrounding the pianist as he toured western Europe: women screaming and fainting during Liszt’s concerts, obsessed with gathering memorabilia such as his coffee dregs, locks of hair and, in one case, a discarded cigar butt. Initially Heine dismissed the fans’ reactions as ‘spectacle for spectacle’s sake’ but he also sought the advice of a doctor who specialised in ‘female diseases’ to offer a medical explanation for this girlish madness.

In Britain, the most well-known ‘mania’ is, of course, Beatlemania. It was not dissimilar to Lisztomania in its specifically feminine characterisation – from fainting to screaming to knicker-slinging – and Paul Johnson of the New Statesman explicitly used the term ‘hysteria’ when he wrote in February 1964 about the Beatles’ youthful fans.

In this tradition, in 2010 what was branded ‘Cleggmania’ gripped a naïve population silly enough to believe utopic promises of free higher education; but the ‘mania’ dissipated along with Clegg’s tuition fee pledge. Likewise those who use the term ‘Corbynmania’ see it as another folly of youth which those older and wiser know will quickly pass. Unless you are a pragmatist, their argument goes, politics will let you down. Keep your knickers on, Corbynites, before long your republican hero will be performing at royal variety shows.

Pitting Corbynmania’s ‘idealism’ against a New Labour ‘pragmatism’, for Alastair Campbell the winner of the leadership must be ABC: ‘Anyone But Corbyn’. This is because Labour’s aim is to win General Elections in order to make a bigger difference to more people’s lives than they would in Opposition or outside of Westminster and, he says, Corbyn is unelectable as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown made a similar plea about ‘power for a purpose’ as the ballot papers were sent out. While acknowledging the heartbreak of defeat he too  warned against an over-emotional reactionary response, saying ‘there is one thing worse than having broken hearts: it is powerlessness.’

The way Campbell and Brown lay it out, the argument really is as simple as ABC. But they argue from the point of view of the status quo; they do not talk about little-d democracy, lasting social change, or how to create an inclusive political system. It reminds me of Wendy Cope’s poem, ‘He Tells Her’: 

  • He tells her that the earth is flat –
  • He knows the facts, and that is that.
  • In altercations fierce and long
  • She tries her best to prove him wrong.
  • But he has learned to argue well.
  • He calls her arguments unsound
  • And often asks her not to yell.
  • She cannot win. He stands his ground.

  • The planet goes on being round.

Returning to Paul Johnson’s take on Beatlemania, his thousand-word-long expression of umbrage at popular culture of the 1960s – or rather, with disdainful inverted commas, “culture” – focuses on an illiterate youth doped by unintelligent ‘mental opiate.’ By contrast, actual culture – Shakespeare and Marlowe are namechecked – will be inherited by ‘the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow’ and ‘continue to shape our civilisation.’  

This is typical establishment rhetoric. It orbits around a vision of ‘civilisation’ convened by dead white men who admired the works of other white men. Anything which threatens the status quo is met with fear and derision. This makes it difficult to challenge power, but does not make the challenge unnecessary – or insurmountable. The planet goes on being round.

From ‘mania’ to optimistic politics

In her 2013 book End of Equality, Beatrix Campbell states, ‘History has not been on the side of women – but feminism is an optimistic politics.’ Struggles by oppressed groups are necessarily thus; the belief that the status quo, armed as it is with historical privilege, can be overturned to create a fairer and more just society requires a degree of optimism.

Given the gendered language used to ridicule Corbyn supporters, we might look to intersectional and feminist movements for confidence that the weight of history can be overcome and the British political system transformed to become genuinely democratic.

There are currently political and social movements across Britain, not exclusively of the left, which Labour as a whole does not engage with. Of the four leadership candidates, only Jeremy Corbyn has engaged with the anti-austerity movement. He was one of the initial signatories on the 2013 letter which called for the founding of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Young voters – who, as a demographic, have been ‘alienated’ from mainstream politics – are now turning out for Corbyn, particularly young women. It is not just his policies, but his difference from the establishment which they say is attractive.

With a Tory majority, damaging austerity measures are due to continue and increase over the next five years, so any debate about Labour’s response must include anti-austerity representation. Leading economists in Britain have pointed out that Corbyn’s stance on austerity is mainstream economics. Somehow the truth, that austerity is neither economically necessary nor socially just, has been overwhelmed by a myth claiming the opposite. This Tory fable about bad spending ends with the moral that Labour is untrustworthy with the economy, so they should not be elected. Instead of offering a better narrative Labour has concerned itself with the challenge of electability on these mythical terms.

Opposing austerity is not about ‘idealism,’ as the ABCers charge, but very real, life-and-death situations. Those within the Labour Party who cast a vote for Corbyn may be deemed ‘naïve’ or ‘irrational’, but combatting the Tory lie about the necessity of austerity is anything but.


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