Plaid Cymru leader Leanna Wood addresses her party conference
Cynical appropriations of women's rights discourse littered the conference season, providing a tiresome reminder of the ease with which parties mobilise feminist rhetoric to promote oppressive policies. Lest we forget.
Lib Dem Jeremy Brown mislaid his distaste for banning things just long enough to champion Muslim women's freedom, by calling for a ban on women wearing the Niqab in public. Back in character the party then voted down a motion seeking to control children's access to online porn through introducing 'opt ins', hailing it as unpalatably illiberal. While trumpetting the freedom of all to enjoy their god-given rights to porn, it seems there is a line to be drawn when it comes to Muslim women dressing as they choose. The Tories, also eager to protect muslim girls' freedom, described their intention to ensure schools can ban the niqab as they please, whilst in an exceptional display of pantomime villainry confirmed a proposal to ditch the European Convention on Human Rights.
It's obvious that the parties' urges to control what muslim women wear have nothing to do with freedom or feminism and everything to do with their own islamaphobic agendas. And while Labour's new promise to increase free childcare allowances for parents in paid work is welcome, it isn't about liberating women either. While it increases women's freedom to remain in work when they have children, it fails those who want the freedom to look after their children at home. It is a policy designed to direct women into the paid economy, in turn penalising those who choose not to. This unabated workerism, made explicit in Labour's 'hardworking families' mantra, undermines feminism's attempts to revalue unpaid housework and caring activities, instead denigrating those who do it, as well as all who can't do paid jobs.
It's not solely that the freedoms for women both the right and left announce are freedoms to participate in society on their terms- by entering the labour market, or dressing a certain way. What makes this women's rights pick-and-mix (or State Feminism) all the more insulting is that it is played out to the tune of austerity, an ideology that is reversing decades of feminist gains and pushing women into poverty.
But when it comes to the parties' use of feminist ideas to further agendas and cloak the real impacts of policies, we must do more than complain of co-option. We need to take responsibility for how our ideas are mobilised, instead of acting surprised when the state plays fast and loose with them. To prevent women's rights being used to further Islamaphobia, we need a radically anti-racist feminist movement that refutes the belief that women's freedom comes from western secularism. To prevent them being co-opted to further the accumulation of wealth by the few, we need a deep critique of the economy and a vision for an alternative, not merely a plea for more egalitarian austerity or a neater entry for women into the market. We need to make bold demands for our feminist future, not ask for concessions.
On the economy, there are interesting ideas coming from the smaller parties and outside England where austerity ideology holds no water. The Green Party was alone in explicitly recognising the gendered impact of austerity. But they also discussed their more radical economic alternatives like the Citizens Income- a guaranteed wage from the state- which a number of feminist economists have explored as a policy that might help revalue unpaid care work and reduce women's time poverty. The SNP announced an initiative to promote the living wage- an idea also featuring in Green Party and Plaid policy- which could have a significant impact on women's incomes, since women constitute the majority of low paid workers. Yet these policies are more incidental than intentional in feminist leanings, since the feminist movement has yet to throw its weight behind them. But what if we did?
Evidence of what a bold and visible feminist movement can achieve was visible in a flurry of policies announced around violence against women. Countless protests and campaigns against rape culture and victim-blaming, and the public exposure of systemic violence that has provoked them, have forced them onto the agenda. The Lib Dems passed a broad motion on domestic violence including a commitment to tackling online harrassment and, in line with Labour, ensuring consent is taught in schools. Plaid Cymru's proposed Victim's Bill of Rights is an interesting attempt at challenging a legal culture that trivialises the accounts of rape and domestic violence victims, while the SNP's Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill proposal to remove corroboration requirements from court hopes to increase conviction rates in cases of rape and domestic violence, which often fall at this hurdle.
Needless to say, at the end of the conference season it's clear that there is much more work to be done on this front, in addition to the monumental challenges posed by an economic system that is profoundly failing women. But with the feminist movement showing no signs of let-up, let's refuse the co-option of our ideas and keep demanding more. In the words of Nancy Fraser, 'having watched the neoliberal onslaught instrumentalize our best ideas, we have an opening now in which to reclaim them'.