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Divide and rule, feminists

Zoe Williams

When we try to present a united front we are not asking too much of ourselves, we are asking too little, says Zoe Williams.

International Women’s Day on March 8 was an occasion for some thought on where feminism is today. I am not that bothered about pornography.

I never have been. I accept the practical point that a lot of porn degrades women intentionally, so it cannot be made without the humiliation of women involved in it.

I accept the theoretical point that it is made for the male gaze, so women are not agents of their own pleasure but accessories to male pleasure.

But I cannot make the leap from that to any serious belief that the act of filming two people having sex is necessarily demeaning to women. I do not accept that women who like porn have somehow been enslaved by a male cultural coding. And if they have, what is anybody’s sexuality but a series of triggers and preferences that they have picked up on the way to maturity?

At the opposite end of this male cultural coding you have the burqa, and I no longer feel strongly about that. I used to think that it was a tragedy that a woman’s dress and, by extension, her public identity, should have to be mediated through male paranoia.

But that was before the attempts at intervention. The French law against the veil has the effect of ejecting girls from school. And the idea that Western women are somehow immune to the exigencies of male paranoia is laughable.

And while we are committing feminist heresy, I do not think skinny models make young girls anorexic. I think it is an insult to women to suggest that the cause and effect of a mental illness could be so obvious.

It sounds like I have mellowed but, in fact, on other things I have become more hardline. It makes no sense to seek equality just for your own gender then step away from egalitarianism more generally.

Pragmatically, what kind of equality are you talking about if it applies only among women? Are you just fighting for some kind of tiered parity in which middle-class women have the same rights and prospects as middle-class men and working-class women have the rights and prospects of working-class men?

I have not turned into one of those beaming, inclusive feminists who look at Tory MP Louise Mensch (to take a wild for-instance) and say: “Sure, you are anti-abortion, you are rabidly free market, you chip away at all the financial mechanisms that make work possible for mothers and then stop in the middle of a parliamentary inquiry and say: ‘I have got to leave at lunchtime to do the school run’, which does working mothers no favours ... but you self-identify as a feminist and that is what counts.”

There are plenty of conversations in the name of feminism that I would happily stamp out like cigarette butts in a dry forest. If I read one more article in which someone confuses sisterliness with feminism and wonders why women are not nicer to one another in the workplace, or on Twitter, in Parliament or anywhere else, I do not think I can take it.

But my International Women’s Day pledge is for us to act more like a football team and less like synchronised swimmers. Synchronicity is a mug’s game and things move faster when everybody concentrates on what they are good at doing.

There is no way we will ever reach an agenda on which all of us agree, in equal measure, with everything. I have seen larger, more vivid, more optimistic feminist gatherings in the past six months than in the rest of my life put together, but not one of them has reached its end without a load of time being wasted on one of these classic faultlines: someone frozen out for admitting she likes Debbie Does Dallas; someone else saying: “What do I care about some middle-income woman’s childcare arrangements when rape is being used as an act of war in the Congo?”

The women’s movement has a problem with ideological purism: in its discourse, it demands not only that we all adhere to a central set of truths, but also that we agree on their priority. This is impossible. You cannot agree on a priority between the defence of a woman’s reproductive rights and the rights of women to be protected from violence.

You cannot say that because women suffer injustices far more severe in other parts of the world a woman having to give up work in Britain because her tax credits are cut is not a feminist issue.

You cannot hope that belief in equality will lead everybody to the same conclusions about body shapes, or all-women shortlists, or gender essentialism.

When we try to present a united front we are not asking too much of ourselves, we are asking too little: waiting for an unattainable unity is just another way of doing nothing. When we divide, we can burn more brightly in many places.—

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