The Tom Watsons of Feminism

The Tom Watsons of Feminism

***long read for the weekend (with, as requested, apology to those who work weekends – long read for your day orf, if you’re lucky enough to get one?)***

This post is most definitely for lefties, but if you’re a feminist thinking WTF is going on with all this lefty misogyny and why are they calling me a fascist, you might also want to read it…

Some of the more politically centrist women are now saying the phenomenon currently known (thanks to Julie Bindel) as The Black Pampers are the legacy of Corbynism.

black Pampers
I refer, of course, to the masked laddies who turn up to harass any women’s meeting they don’t approve of

I don’t know about that, but I do know that people who threw themselves enthusiastically into the Corbyn movement learned, amongst other things, all about the Overton Window. Whatever else did or didn’t happen, the Corbyn era, and the policies we put together in the Labour Party during that time, brought a lot of things of the left back into the wider conversation, and it became possible once more to talk about things like ‘socialism’ and ‘internationalism’. The Overton window of mainstream politics returned far enough to the left that most people could see socialism in the frame, whether they approved of it or not.

overton window diagram
The ‘Overton Window’ is a chart used to show the range of generally acceptable ideas in any given time or place

We even had that glorious moment where a behind-the-times TV interviewer thought he had a real blinder of a pot-shot when he said to Corbyn “are you a Marxist?”  How we all loved Corbyn’s answer: “I’m not sure – I haven’t read everything Marx wrote, have you?”

The subtext there, for lefties, was the interviewer saying ‘Marxism is way beyond the pale. If I pin that on you, you’re dead.’ And Corbyn replying, ‘no, the Overton Window has moved. People are interested now, in what the ideas of the left actually are, and I’ve just told them they can go do some reading and find out what Marx said. Thank you for the question.’

In short, socialism was impossible in the Labour Party for decades, because the Overton Window of acceptable mainstream conversation had, during the Blair years, moved a long way to the right. The TV interview that night gave Corbyn the chance to celebrate us moving it firmly back again, so that a mere democratic socialist such as Corbyn could, and did, build a huge following ‘for the many’.

The Overton Window of Feminism

19970s WLM postcard
Postcard from the 1970s ‘women’s liberation movement’

I grew up in the 1970s. At that time, second wave feminism was presenting as much of a threat to ‘the establishment’ as Corbyn’s Labour did. The Overton Window of feminism began to be pulled into just as extreme a position as that of socialism was in the decades before Corbyn’s leadership, and the words had moved along with it. That is, you could be ‘accused’ of being a socialist or a Marxist or whatever, but ‘left’ meant a lot less than that. Being actually socialist would have pushed you beyond the pale, but ‘feminist’ was going to be okay, because like ‘left’, it was a word to be tamed, tamed until it didn’t interfere with the sales figures of slimming aids and so on. That is why during my teen years, I was vaguely aware of feminism going on around me and just like most people around me, I took the piss out of it. 

Third Wave Feminism?

The feminism of the 1970s was countered in the mainstream conversation by something as utterly in thrall to capitalism as the Blairite Labour Party was, and as Starmer’s Labour Party aspires to be.  This ‘third wave’ we were presented with grew with Thatcherism. Its advocates read Cosmopolitian, and became convinced that living in a capitalist world was just fine for women, if they could only get better at having sex with men, looking like whores whilst holding down executive jobs, bringing up 2.5 children, etc etc etc.

This ‘feminism’ of the late 20th century was nicknamed ‘pole dance your way to liberation’. It sold surrogacy as a touching way for women to ‘give something back’. It sold prostitution as ‘sex work is work’, and the exploitation of children as ‘permissiveness’. It was preparing the way for a feminism which, with the advent of the GRA in 2004, would finally reveal itself as a men’s rights movement by responding to supposed male rights on female territory with ‘be kind’, rather than with ‘WTF?’

Fourth Wave Feminism?

 (I don’t really approve of dating the waves. There were still ‘Second Wavers’ around throughout, but while they were beyond the frame of the Overton Window, I couldn’t see them and now, we are in constant conflict because Third Wavers and Fourth Wavers co-exist (or co-destruct) in most organisations, but…) when the trans demands movement formally known as Stonewall and Co Inc came onto the scene, some women realised they’d been had, and a new generation of us learned our feminism by looking back and finding the Second Wavers.

The Overton Window of Trans

This is about the mainstream, the base line, the acceptable position on trans at the time of the GRA (Gender Recognition Act) in 2004.

At time of GRA, the proportion of women in parliament was about 20%. So men, at a proportion of 4 to 1, made the decisions about when and where and how men could legally be treated as women. Basically, their decision was ‘almost always’, and no, it didn’t matter if they’d had surgery, taken hormones, learned to get along with women etc. If you look at Hansard for the time, there were questions about the safety of women but, to the mostly men making the decisions, there were very few people who’d likely want to be trans people and therefore a small amount of danger to women. A small amount of endangered women in society doesn’t matter, they concluded.

Institute for government showing gradual rise in women's presence in government since 1918
Graphs copied from The Institute for Government

Looking at the Institute’s graph for gender balance from 1918 to the present day you can see the proportion of women has been struggling its way upward, recently achieving about 35% but, if you are a feminist, you will note that they use the word ‘gender’, not ‘sex’ so we don’t actually know, do we? Because since 2004, in most circumstances (and many organisations go way beyond the law in this) – in almost all circumstances, transwomen are taken as, and recorded as, women.  This is done by ignoring biology, calling sex ‘assigned at birth’, and listing stats by ‘gender’. That is why the central pillar of Fourth Wave feminism is that sex matters, and needs to be recorded separately from fluffy terms like ‘gender’, with trans status also recorded when necessary – but as well, not instead.

Institute for Government graph showing 'gender balance' in government in 2022
Women in government in 2022

But even though the figures include anyone who says they’re a woman, the figure is still only 35% now so political decisions are more male than female and, everywhere from Westminster to your local party branch, women who think sex matters are being successfully pushed out of political life by the cries of ‘transphobia’ aimed at any woman who ‘yes buts’ over self-ID, or over allowing ‘gender identity’ to replace ‘sex’.

The Overton Window of Women’s Groups

I’m going back to my Corbyn movement analogy for a couple of paragraphs (I really hope I have some lefties reading this. If you’re not one, this paragraph isn’t much help to you). Do you remember how all the new, enthusiastic Labour Party members – political rookies like me, who hadn’t been to a Unite political school or an LRC rally yet, so had no political history backing our enthusiastic socialism – we all voted for Tom Watson as Deputy Leader because, we thought, he was a ‘staunch trade unionist’ and therefore would support Corbyn’s socialism. How wrong we were! Soon, we learned that we needed to pick and choose our trade unions. The RMT, the FBU, the Bakers’ Union and quite a lot of Unite (especially Unite Community) were on our side but some of them – oh dear, way to the right of our Overton Window of socialism.

Tom Watson sticking his chest out alongside a rather bemused looking Corbyn

 Nowadays, amongst women’s groups, you can find many who are so busy being inclusive and ‘supporting our trans sisters’ that they have little time for actual women’s political issues – even less time than Tom Watson had for actual socialists (thugs, hooligans and entryists, he called them, if I remember rightly).

Amongst the Fourth Wave women’s groups, those who are a wee bit worried about the burgeoning trans movement – the ones that might risk saying they are a bit worried about male-bodied people in women’s sport, for example – are just about within the accepted bounds of society.

The Internationale of Feminism

There is of course, a second Overton Window for women who know their feminism. To see this, you need to understand that Women’s Place UK and the Labour Women’s Declaration movement are the more moderate ones. WPUK was set up by trade unionist, mostly Labour Party women. They start from, and accept as the baseline, the situation we had after 2004, when a group of mostly men had drawn up rules for trans people that ‘did not endanger many women’.

The position of groups like WPUK is that we want a solution that works for all, a solution where women and trans people can live with dignity.  This starting point is the agreement made in 2004 (without most women’s knowledge or consent) that most of the time, most women must pretend to believe men can be women, even in situations where those women may feel at risk. This, the law says, is acceptable because it doesn’t happen very often. Civilised, respectful groups such as WPUK and LWD, may go as far as to say however, that a lot more people are now ‘identifying as’ trans, and therefore more caution is necessary. That’s why we need the 2010 Equality Act to be properly understood and implemented (see page 66 of the 2019 Labour Party manifesto – there’s a .pdf download available at the bottom of the page linked to here).

Pronouns and all that

Move a little further outside the pale, and you do find groups who are 100% resistant to compelled speech, and who therefore acknowledge that for their safety and sanity, women may well need to use pronouns to describe the sex of the person they see in front of them, rather than the gender that person is signalling at them.  You find groups who think the current situation is totally unacceptable for women, and must be improved upon. Mainstream society deems these groups ‘radical’, ‘beyond the pale’ and ‘transphobic’. They are beyond the current frame of the Overton Window of feminism.

So, if you are an advocate of ‘trans rights’, meaning more rights for male trans people in women’s territory, you should be very eager indeed to accept and negotiate with organisations like WPUK because if you don’t, you will find yourself faced with an ever-growing and ever-more indignant movement that really is radical feminist – a term which is currently so far outside the Overton Window of mainstream thought that it’s often used as a term of abuse.

But, as I headed this blog post as being for lefties…

 No-one loves a moderate

Personally, I like radical feminism every bit as much as the Corbyn movement liked Marxism. I don’t think I am quite a radical feminist myself – I haven’t read all the books yet, but you never know. It’s interesting stuff. To bring the two stories together, if you were left enough that you considered yourself a possible Marxist within the Corbyn movement, and you are still considering WPUK to be an ‘anti-trans hate group’ you are, not to put too fine a point on it, the Tom Watson of feminism. Please read your Engels and your Eleanor Marx again.

Here’s a bit more orientation for any lefties who are still confused:

Marxist feminism

Marxist feminists are the ones who do their feminism with detailed class analysis. They look at the ‘trans rights’ movement, note that trans people already have the same legal rights as women, along with a specific legal protected characteristic of their own, ‘gender reassignment’, and they say to the so-called trans rights activists, what are you doing for working class women? For black women? Is your ‘activism’ just based on a luxury belief you picked up in university? (see the bit about ‘woke’ at the bottom). You have yet to convince us you are doing anything but sabotaging any efforts at class solidarity. You are also hounding women out of politics at an alarming rate.

Marxist feminists are the ones who actually apply that old mantra of the left, ‘there can be no socialism without feminism and no feminism without socialism’.

Radical feminism

Radical feminists centre women – that is, female people, in their lives, their work and in their analysis. They are often lesbians. They are popularly believed to be ‘trans exclusionary’. They are not – they are male exclusionary. A trans person who is female and not afraid to say so is welcome. Radical feminism is not party-political in the conventional terms. Radical feminists do not, for instance, consider the ‘Women’s Equality Party’ to be seriously feminist – but radical feminism is not oblivious to left-right issues. It recognises that women suffer the most from a society that tolerates austerity, bad housing, shortage of social care services, the neglect of refugees, the disabled and the elderly, and so on.  Radical feminism looks a lot like socialism to me.

Admittedly, it can be hard to spot a radical feminist at the moment because the trans rights crew are currently calling any women who stand by the idea that sex exists ‘rad fems’. To quote a much older religion, ‘by their deeds shalt thou know them’. If they don’t have, or are not interested in, logical analysis of society and the consequences of sexism, they are not radical feminists.

Gender critical?

For those who are getting confused as to whether ‘gender critical’ means ‘right wing’, ‘gender critical’ is just a rather pointless prefix we feminists started adding to ‘feminist’ because there were an annoying number of women trying to do feminism without centring women in any way, in order to ‘be kind’ to male trans people . We could not communicate effectively with them without explaining what ‘feminism’ meant after having explained what ‘woman’ meant, so it was quicker to invent an explanatory prefix. Gender-critical feminism spans left and right. It is, in short, working feminism of whatever variety.

Feminism does have elements of the same problems the Labour Party has, in that there are those who are socialist, those who think they are socialist, and those who are not socialist at all, and they can get a bit heated with each other sometimes (although on the whole, I find cross-party working with feminists far, far less fraught than working on women’s issues in a group that has males in it.)

Woke

I’m going to have to do a whole nother blog about ‘woke’ soon. The word is being so misused, it’s in danger of suffering the same fate the word ‘woman’ has but for now, if you reckon ‘woke’ means ‘alerted to systemic prejudice’ but you still think feminists can do their politics whilst denying their significance as a biological sex-class, I’d say you were a tad outside the Overton Window marked ‘awake’.

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5 responses to “The Tom Watsons of Feminism”

  1. Enjoyed the article especially using the Overton window to look at the ‘acceptable’ face of feminism. I don’t however agree that the 1970s saw the advent of 3rd wave feminism. In the 70s and 80s in the UK, 2nd wave feminists were starting refuges, rape crisis centres, combatting rape in marriage etc. & working collectively to combat the harms done to all women by the abuse of women by the state & male ideologies. Thatcher sent the Overton window further right than it had been for decades and in my view paved the way for the self indulgence and ‘lad culture’ of the 90s, the decade the male-pandering, 3rd wavers embraced prostitution and porn as being somehow good for women.

    I look forward to reading your next blog post.

    Like

    • Thanks Epona – I absolutely agree, and am forever grateful to 2WF – that’s why I said they were there all along, but – perhaps it depends where you were – it was the Cosmo brigade I mostly heard about in the 1970s.

      Like

    • If you’re passing this way again – I had a wrangle over dates and definitions with some women and *think* I have clarified those issues – hope so!

      Like

  2. I despair of the “Gender Critical Feminists” who expend their energies disparaging the like of Kellie-Jay Keen, to the extent that she now says that she is no longer a feminist. Perhaps to remove that target from her back as much as to distance herself from them.

    By “deeds not words” she could be described as a “working feminist” more than some of her detractors.

    I also despair that the rank misogyny that has always infected The Left has been amplified and given respectability under the guise of “trans rights advocacy”. In the same way that Kellie-Jay has stopped calling herself a feminist, I have stopped calling myself a socialist.

    I was a Broad Left activist at University, mainly campaigning on women’s issues. I was very suspicious of the Labour Party, as being inhabited by swarms of regressive male careerists.

    I have been a Trade Union activist all my working life, again campaigning on women’s issues. I joined the Labour Party, am still a Labour Party member and a Union member. Right now I would vote Tory.

    We need not only to reclaim The Left but, as you point out, move them on from the all too common position of our male allies that women’s rights are bottom of the agenda. “First we need to concentrate on getting Labour elected”, “After we have renationalised XY and Z”, “Tackling poverty and austerity is foundational” . . . . . “Don’t worry, women’s rights are important! We will see you right! But we all need you to help (insert latest cause of the month)”

    “Jam tomorrow” writ large.

    To my jaded ears this quote now has the ring of TWAW: “there can be no socialism without feminism and no feminism without socialism”.

    If there is “working feminism” then there is also “working socialism”.

    The Overton Window has moved so far that “socialists” celebrate the masked men in Manchester who, on 15 May:

    – blocked the Standing For Women #LetWomenSpeak rally from gathering at the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst,

    – physically attacked a woman holding a Suffragette flag,

    – draped a trans flag around the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst ,

    – and – yelled at women attending the Standing For Women event, shouting “We are the real feminists!”

    Like

    • Thank you. I love that there are so many different kinds of women on the campaign – it proves to me, if proof were lacking, that feminism is for all women. I don’t, for example, agree with much of KJK’s political stance but I think her ‘adult human female’ campaign was sheer genius, so I applaud her for that. I have even worked with Conservative women along the way but – for all I respect those women for their feminism, *please* don’t vote Tory. There are independents, there are also individuals in every party who are standing up for women. If there are no such people in your constituency, just write a bit of feminism on the ballot paper. Nothing, but NOTHING should validate what this government has done to women and girls, to all our children, to refugees, to the poor…….. I could go on…..

      Like

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