The Purity Spiral and the House on Fire

House on fire

Some of the worst atrocities in our history have been committed by ideologues, people so wedded to a political idea-set that they do their politics by the book, and never actually look at what’s happening in the world. In country after country, vast numbers of people have suffered and died whilst state administrations plough on with “this is the right thing to do, it says so in Chapter 24, Clause 396(b)ii of Our Book.”

In the burgeoning global women’s movement, many of the campaigns and groups are very new – and there are so many of them. New groups I’m aware of include women gathering to defend against the terrorizing of women over the hijab issue in Iran; to protest the denial of education and means of earning money to women in Afghanistan; resisting the withdrawal of abortion rights in the US and, my main concern currently, addressing the threat to the UK Equality Act sex-based rights, and the related loss of dedicated VAWG services and women’s political groups.

One of the tasks of a political campaign group that finds itself growing and gaining traction is the need to place themselves politically. This is particularly important at a time when party politics is in flux, and entire political systems in crisis. It’s particularly difficult for women’s groups because we make up over a half of the population, and whilst there are many issues that deeply affect all women, there are very few where all women will have the same methods or the same end-results in mind, let alone identical political and cultural starting points.

Exciting volleys?

I don’t worry myself at all about knee-jerk comments on, say, Twitter. It’s very obvious that a lot of people throw in comments without thinking, and without reading what they’re commenting on – and they are usually people who appear to be trying to start rows for fun. I have nothing against arguments – about actual issues — but rows and wild accusations are intensely boring and utterly counter-productive. I generally ignore them but …

Some campaigns are run for the good of quite small groups of people. They can focus, they can agree easily. Whilst there are a lot of political issues where women as a sex-class have common ground, we’re over half the population of the world, we can’t expect to all agree on political stances and strategies. We must learn to live with differences — what we cannot afford to do though, is learn to tolerate racism, misogyny, or allies that promote those evils.

Amongst the comments and discussions lately, there are many that accuse ‘the left’ of ‘purity politics’, arguing that women have to make any alliances we can, because ‘the house is on fire’ on the sex-based rights issue. That’s an understandable argument, but not an accurate one.

The left don’t have a monopoly on ideology or factionalism

Just look at the endless episodes of in-fighting, sackings and splits the Tories have gone through in the last decade of appalling government they’ve inflicted on us – just look at the way Tories determinedly continue to drain our NHS and try to knock back our transport and local service workers, because the Tory government (along with those who call themselves ‘centrists’) are wedded to the belief that giving services into the hands of billionaire profiteers is The Right Way To Run A Country – and British Tories are still relatively mild, next to the Iranian ideologues who are using the weapons of war – tanks and guns and gas – against school girls in an ideological battle over head-gear – oh, and what about Nazi Germany? It is a lazy slur to write off lefties as ideologues, as though it’s not something the party politics of the centre and the right — as far right as you can go, are equally prone to.

Purity spirals

spiral of fire

Yes, there are those who paint themselves into ever-smaller corners over who should work with whom and yes, I am aware of a handful of women who appear to spend most of their time reading other women’s work and ticking them off for any references they consider inappropriate. Those women are a minority, and to respond to that by going on about purity spirals whenever a lefty decides their campaign would not be well-served by appearing on a corporate TV channel, or they make a statement to distance themselves from a right-wing organization, is lazy and ridiculous.

As for the idea that only the left do such things, just look at the comparison between Corbyn’s relatively lefty Labour leadership and Starmer’s centre-to-right one. As far as I remember, not a single party member or MP was disciplined for taking part in centre/right groups or actions during Corbyn’s ‘lefty’ leadership but, since Starmer took over, his administration made a list of groups and events they considered too far left, and have expelled or suspended large numbers of party members for working with, appearing in public zoom meetings hosted by – or even ‘liking’ memes made by, those groups,  even if they did so before the proscription was announced.

The house on fire

House on fire

And finally, to all those women who are claiming there are no holds barred now, because ‘the house is on fire’, that women and girls face an unprecedented threat in the form of politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon, who are ideologically blinded, and hell-bent on destroying women’s legal rights: I understand that feeling, and I am truly grateful for that sense of urgency but – and I really don’t want to be judgemental here, because everyone has to start somewhere – the people who think this way are mostly very new to politics, or at least new to feminist politics.

Julie Bindel addressed the point very well in her debate with Helen Joyce over the Christmas break. She shares the painful memory of watching a video of a six-year-old child undergoing FGM, she talks about her years working to deal with the consequences of violence against women and girls. One could also point to what’s happening – and has been happening for a long time – to women in countries like Iran and Afghanistan.

Gender ideology is not the first, or the only, potentially fatal threat to women and girls that governments and cultures have cheerfully taken on board. Such pernicious threats to women and girls are not new, and if you’re going to abandon your principles to deal with them, then that’s going to be a permanent abandonment. There is a never-ending stream of crime based on views of what women are and what they are ‘for’ that are every bit as reality-denying and every bit as dangerous as the current gender-ideology theory we are objecting to.

Helen Joyce and Julie B indel Should TERFs unite with the Right?

Click here to watch the Bindel and Joyce debate (Bindel’s house-on-fire comment is about 50 minutes in)

Women need socialism

Not all feminists call themselves socialists but, in my experience, feminists who are genuinely addressing women’s needs automatically develop a relatively socialist agenda, whether or not they use the word. Women need a world in which carers are provided for, in which education and healthcare are accessible to all, in which secure, affordable housing is attainable, in which business does not put profit over morals when it encounters lucrative elements of the sex industry.

So if you don’t want to use the word socialism – fine, the word is mostly not essential – but celebrities, organizations and political groups that happily align their work with fascists, racists and amoral profiteers are pretty much bound to be working against what women need and, if they are large and powerful organizations, their ability to steer a message their way is likely to be greater than yours, so you will probably lose more than you gain by working with them.

That’s neither purity politics nor a sign of lacking urgency. It’s pragmatism, it’s practicality, it’s doing what works.


Solidarity does not, and never did, mean we’re all in agreement. It means we will support each other. I try not to make free with my feelings about what happened to the Labour Party when I’m working with Labour Party women — women who have stayed in the party, tolerating a lot of nonsense in order to get a better deal for women into opposition policy before the next election – I can express my feelings about the party privately, or in other places, when it needs saying; nor do I generally vent my policy-disagreements with trade union reps when I’m on union anti-austerity or anti-war demos. I’ll wait for a conference where policy is being debated.  Solidarity can be achieved amid single-issue disagreements – it cannot be achieved with profiteering corporations, religious fantasists or corrupt, right-wing media companies. That is the opinion of most lefty feminists, and it does not amount to ‘factionalism’ or a ‘purity spiral’.

Amicable difference

I don’t mind you disagreeing with me. I’m happy to argue out any points people find interesting or puzzling, but not when we’re working on a campaign where we are in agreement. We need to be able to accept differences of opinion in policy and of strategy without treating them like family feuds, if the women’s movement is to have any coherence. I know some differences are very hard to ignore — but that’s one of the reasons why we have such a variety of women’s groups. Those groups can work separately towards many of the same goals, so that their members and followers have no need to take pot-shots at each other along the way.

As for the rows — I’m sure I’ve lost it with people more than once along the way and, where that is so, I recognize my own failing. Let’s try harder. Let’s go easy on the inflammatory comments. Resist making them, and resist replying in kind. If you’re curious about others’ opinions (have to admit, that’s the trait that most often gets me into trouble) let’s tread carefully – let’s resolve to use more question marks and less exclamation marks when we’re in (politically, culturally) mixed company, and especially on public social media pages.


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