The Paradox of the Conservative Feminist

The dictionary definition of feminism is: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” In fact, despite the vitriolic abuse feminists receive online, many now make a point of acknowledging that the patriarchy is damaging to all genders and therefore feminist campaigns should encapsulate all of these groups’ issues. However, for the purposes of this article, this definition will be accepted, as it crucially contains the core of feminism: ‘equality of the sexes’. Before moving onto party politics, it is essential that it is understood that feminism, as an umbrella term, must therefore be intersectional. This should perhaps be evident from the terms ‘women’ and ‘sexes’ in themselves being non-specific: one knows that the collective of ‘women’ contains a huge variety of people from different backgrounds and cultures. Note briefly that intersectionality does not mean that one type of feminism works for everyone, precisely because women have so many different experiences. It means that the movement needs to be flexible to fit each woman’s specific needs and recognise additional oppression or privilege of individuals within the broad scope of being a woman. For example, a black trans woman faces different oppression to a white cis woman and feminism should allow for it. The recent furore surrounding Germaine Greer’s offensive dismissal of trans women is evidence of such disparity in privilege level – an obvious layer of oppression suffered by a specific group of women that does not apply to the whole group. However, it was the admissions of Greer’s continued right to call herself a feminist, rather than those people who sought to take the title from her that truly considered intersectionality. Certainly, her comments meant that she can no longer be described as an inclusive feminist, and therefore the umbrella term arguably is no longer correct, but it does not mean that she cannot still be a highly influential cis-feminist. In short, feminism as a movement should be inclusive. Inevitably, some of its members might be blinded by personal prejudice, but that does not take away their right to campaign for the rights of those that they consider worthy.

In terms of political conservatism’s place in feminism, the BBC describe the Conservative Party thus: “Britain’s main centre-right party, it has traditionally stood for free trade, private enterprise, individual liberty, low taxation and strong defence.” This overview could, on the surface, provide good grounds for feminism. The concept of ‘individual liberty’ is suggestive of equality, even if the language is left somewhat ambiguous. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Tories, policies in recent years seem to prove this brief statement, too – their support for TTIP an example of ‘free trade’, the Syrian airstrikes and renewal of Trident both displays of military strength (even if arguably superficial and ineffective). Taxes have also been cut with the threshold for the higher rate of tax pushed up. None of these things seem particularly prudent in a struggling economy, but equally, none of it seems particularly related to feminism on the surface, or particularly detrimental to women specifically. At a glance, Harman’s comments in 2012 that “If you’re actually political, you can’t be a Conservative and a feminist” seem unfair. However, if one thinks more carefully about the concept of intersectionality and non-exclusive feminism, perhaps there’s some truth in her words, misunderstood. Given that sympathisers defend the party by scathingly marginalising those who require financial aid: “Give a woman a Labour prime minister and she can live on welfare – just…Conservative feminism is about boosting women to their full potential.” – it makes one doubtful that a Conservative can truly believe in both Conservatism and inclusive feminism. Of course, it could be argued that this quote is simply the ignorant view of one person who happens to be part of the Conservative Party, but George Osborne’s cuts to welfare in combination with the raising of the top-tier tax threshold suggests far more care extended to those able to earn a mid-high income than those who might need state assistance by the party as a whole. This latter category has a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities in it, and because of this, it means that Tory feminism is limited to white, middle class activism. Added to this fact, it must be considered that women as a whole are disproportionately affected by austerity when compared to men, and suddenly Conservative feminism begins to look rather hypocritical, at least if one agrees entirely with their economic policy. In fairness, Conservative feminists are unlikely to believe that they are being exclusionary, and while this is concerning to a degree, good intentions are better than outright bigotry. Members of the Conservative Party, centre-right individuals, are one thing – social conservatives and bigots are another. By definition, they seek to preserve traditional societal attitudes, so these traditionalists cannot want to advance the position of women. After all, advancement and preservation are opposites, and all there is to preserve is a world where women have had few rights and little room for self-expression.

Of course, many Conservatives are also socially conservative, but affiliation with a particular political party neither ensures or exempts a person from being socially conservative. Given this, it should be stressed that it is social conservatism that should exclude one from the feminist movement, but presumably no social conservative has any desire to join. Meanwhile, in terms of party politics, the name of a person’s preferred party gives a wide spectrum of possible beliefs that they could hold, and only interrogation will reveal what those specific beliefs are. So, if a person wants to identify as a Conservative feminist, it seems wrong to tell them that they cannot fight for women’s rights in the best way they know how. If their attitudes seem exclusionary, education, not further exclusion, is surely the best route forwards.

 

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