Earlier this month, OurKingdom published a piece denouncing Tory Feminism by anarcha feminist Zoe Stavri. The piece was picked up by 'Clara X', who blogs at Feminism for Tories.
A three-part exchange ensued between the two, from the Conservative and anarchist perspectives. Which approach, if any, deserves to be called truly feminist?
The portrait of Tory feminism in Zoe Stavri's article bears little resemblance to my views or those of the Tory feminists I have encountered. Socially conservative American politics are far removed from the mainstream Conservative Party in the UK. Tories who identify as feminists are not right-wing Cornerstone Group MPs such as Nadine Dorries, but members of the Tory Reform Group (arguably to the left of Tony Blair's government), liberal in both economic and social policies.
I believe firstly that all people have an equal fundamental worth based on their humanity, and secondly that people should be assessed on their on merits rather than on assumed characteristics. This makes me a liberal feminist. I also believe in a smaller state and individual choice. This means that I vote Conservative. The two are rarely in conflict, as my libertarian heart is tempered by my pragmatic head.
The reason Ms Stavri has difficulty pinning down Tory feminism is that it isn't a doctrine, but an approach. Tory feminists tend be pragmatists rather than idealists. They see the state and society as separate, and recognise that people are individuals.
Individualism is not incompatible with liberal feminism. Indeed, equality and individualism are inextricably entwined. Discrimination is wrong precisely because it makes assumptions based on collective prejudices – that women are bad at driving or that men are bad at multi-tasking. In rejecting an essentialist view of “womanhood” and stressing personal choice, individualism is about equality.
Believing in choice does not mean being blind to the constraints placed on making that choice. Tory women want to break down the barriers which prevent women from achieving their potential. Yes, this includes the glass ceiling, whether that's more women on boards, more women in middle management, or more women taking on traditionally male roles. The glass ceiling exists in more places than the high earning roles which get the most attention.
These barriers also include the myriad of social expectations and internalised stereotypes which constrain women's choices. The Conservative Women's Organisation recognises this, encouraging women to seek parliamentary office and working with female candidates.
The fact that not every woman has the choices of the more privileged is why Tory feminists are fighting for a level playing field. I know that – as a white, well educated, able-bodied woman – I got lucky. And I also know that the way to open up more choices is to fight the constraints. Creating yet more laws is more likely to create a backlash than change the stereotypes, so resulting in yet more social constraints.
Tory feminism thinks that the way to equality lies not in tick-boxes or government control, but in changes to society. That's only achievable through working to remove those barriers which constrain choices.
Not every woman who votes Conservative is a feminist, and it is either ill-informed or disingenuous to suggest that Ms Dorries must be one, especially when she has consistently used the term “pro-women” in place of “Tory feminist” and has argued for a collective rather than individualist view of women.
Tory feminists are not all the same, but they all start from the pragmatic belief that encouragement is generally better than legislation and that individuals should be able to make their own choices. Equality is something which is achieved by challenging social stereotypes and expectations, not by passing a law.
I must begin with a thank you to Clara for clearing up some of my confusion with what Tory feminism stands for. I will admit to have been thrown by red herrings such as Nadine Dorries, who, as far as I can tell, does identify herself as a Tory feminist (and defines it as “Not hard. Take feminism, remove manhating bit, add high heels, mutual respect and a huge pinch of commonsense”). I feel like I have a better understanding of the Tory feminist approach, although there are still some problems to which I do not think Tory feminism holds the solution.
Like Clara, I believe in individual choice and do not think that the state can ever offer viable solutions to ending the oppression of women. As an anarcha feminist, it seems to me that the state actively contributes to this problem. At face value, therefore, there is a lot in common with these approaches. The difference lies in approaches towards capitalism and collectivism.
Tory feminism and capitalism are close bedfellows. The push to get more women into boardrooms, managerial positions and the traditionally male role of breadwinner, along with attempts to get women into well-paid positions in politics, are all based on the same broad idea: that increased participation in a capitalist system is the way towards liberating women.
This dovetails with the difference between liberal individualism and the anarchist view of personal liberty. While liberalism involves freeing the markets and opening up competition between individuals, the anarchist approach to freedom is “the freedom to be in the world and to have a network of care and support” (We Are Everywhere, p108). These two approaches are fundamentally opposed: the anarchist view requires that necessities such as food, shelter and education are rights, while the liberal view gives markets the freedom to buy and sell such things.
Under capitalism and individualism, creating a level playing field, a stated goal of Tory feminism, is difficult if not outright impossible. The freer the markets, the greater the commodification of the basics becomes, and the harder it is for those who were not born lucky to become lucky. For many women who had few choices to begin with, the liberal or neoliberal economic approach will limit rather than increase the options available to them.
I am not sure of the extent to which Tory feminism is supportive of the decisions the Tory government has made which have been negatively impacting women and removing the ability to choose. The scaling back of the public sector has brought the number of women unemployed to 10.1 million, with the number of women claiming JSA at its highest level since records began. Low-income women are having to give up work due to cuts to working family tax credit, while cuts to legal aid and services for victims of domestic violence will mean that more women are forced to stay in abusive relationships. Proposals to make hiring a cleaner tax-deductible to help more women into work can only help those who can afford to hire domestic labour in the first place, with no safeguards in place to help the women who are the cleaners. The disproportionate impact of government policy on women must, surely, be an important issue for Tory feminists, and I would be very interested to hear how such problems can be solved.
It is a necessary component of any feminist movement to challenge stereotypes and eradicate prejudice and discrimination against women, and ultimately Tory feminism is right in its assertion that legislation cannot do this. Neither, though, can promoting individualism and competition between women: while some succeed, the majority will remain unable to choose anything but the hand they have been dealt.
Tory feminism cannot offer a solution to the intersecting oppressions that most women face by treating each woman's circumstance as a choice she has made.
The answer to Zoe Stavri's points about capitalism lies in the nature of Conservatism. Or, at least, of the UK Conservative party.
British Conservatism is, above all else, pragmatic. The question of whether capitalism is right or wrong is rarely asked - capitalism is currently the system, regardless of whether it's good or not. Tories look to temper capitalism and tweak it, rather than to overthrow it. It's not so much about whether they want to change the system, but that they think change is unlikely.
Perhaps this makes it harder to achieve equality, but slow and gradual change is more effective than radical change. That so many people often prefer the status quo makes radicalism difficult if not impossible. In short, I settle for achievable small changes within a flawed system rather than holding out for revolutionary dreams.
Part of this is because I believe that every system is flawed. What, therefore, is worse or more flawed about capitalism? Humans are by turns utilitarian and selfish. Any world we create is "red in tooth and claw". Utopia is impossible.
The fact that many have their choices horribly restricted does not mean that choice should be abandoned as a goal. Encouraging women will result in some succeeding, and that in turn will result in more opportunities being opened up for others. I do not pretend that this releases all the many constraints - the weight on society of our male-dominated history is far too great - but it is a start.
In answer to the question on how women are affected by government policy, I would say that the actions of government are rarely in favour of everyone, and while I have generally understood the principles and reasons behind this government's policies, I don't always support the application.
As for Ms Dorries, I certainly interpret that particular tweet as defending others' rights to Tory feminism rather than claiming the label for herself. If she has indeed decided to change her previous dislike of the word "feminism" then it only shows how broad Tory feminism is - much like political parties themselves.
I'm delighted that we've been able to have this conversation - while we start from different political persuasions, I feel we've found some understanding through debate and discussion.
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