In our satin tights, fighting for our rights! But are women really natural campaigners?

Stereotypes about women drawn to campaigning because they are natural nurturers do more harm than good, argues Mhairi Guild

Mhairi Guild, 14 January 2010

We're a nurturing, caring bunch, aren't we, ladies? Not like those mean, power-obsessed, emotionally illiterate menfolk. Things would be different if we ran the country/the banks/foreign policy, as we are increasingly often assured. And no doubt they would. I don't dispute for a second that the testosterone-fuelled, profit-led, morally ambivalent systems that pervade business, politics, popular culture and oooh... most public spaces really, wouldn't - like every area of our lives - be vastly improved by greater, more substantive equality of representation and input. But I am so very weary of the way in which female sensitivity, empathy and every other admirable, emotionally intelligent trait that gets lumped in with what is rather dismissively dubbed the 'feminisation' of the public sphere, is so often lauded as the answer as to our problems. It's lazy, it generalises and it limits women as much as the men it caricatures as barbarians.

Indeed, I often wonder how many women - Harriet Harman being the most notable of the recent culprits - who peddle this line of female ethical superiority remember their early teens. Politics? Backstabbing? Emotional and psychological guerrilla warfare that would make a 1950s CIA agent blush? And that's just within the intimate cherished circles of your BFFs. We have fabulous strengths and wisdom, comrades, but we also have serious bite. What set me musing on this most recently was an interesting piece titled 'Women at War' in the Observer Magazine a few weeks ago, which drew attention to - and rightly celebrated - the prevalence of women among the current crop of environmental and legal justice activists, and in the charitable and campaigning sector more broadly.

These are genuinely exciting developments; both the prominence of the established heavyweights we (well, ok, I) have come to slavishly adore like Shami Chakrabarti, and the young, passionately engaged and pro-active women now taking to the streets and organising for themselves, campaigning against climate change in particular. Being a pseudo-academic lay-about, rarely far from a teapot, glass (bottle) of vino tinto or indeed a sofa and DVD player remote, I was largely ignorant of the fabulous Edwardian garden-party-hosting, guerrilla-gardening-on-the-House-of-Commons-roof antics of female activist group and neo-suffragettes Climate Rush, for example. They sound completely awesome and I'm pretty inspired, I may even try to prise myself off said sofa to get involved.

activistwomen.jpgAs ever, a strong thread of the analysis in the Observer article emphasised the personal and emotional resonance of the campaign issues at stake, as well as the significance of "predominantly 'female' characteristics" that make women particularly suited to campaigning and advocacy work. Paula McCartney's courageous fight to bring the IRA killers of her brother Robert to justice and Rose Gentle's high-profile anti-war campaign following her young son's death due to inadequate military kit in Iraq were thus explored as examples of the visceral female "need to fight for one's sibling or child: to protect them in death because they felt unable to in life".

In such cases, women are fighting for justice for their deceased loved ones and, in so doing, are seen to be exercising a primordial female instinct to protect the family whatever it takes. In other examples of women and organisations worthy of enormous respect - Southall Black Sisters, Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Joan Bakewell - empathy and a groundswell of maternal instinct to right the world for future generations is a recurring theme; the foundational moral authority and strength from which women are called to battle. The piece comes back time and again, as such stories of female action often do, to the lion-hearted woman warrior, enraged and fearless in her struggle to protect family and young.

Philanthropic 'English gentlewomen' found an expansive, often autonomous role in the British Empire, which advanced the English women via the subjugation of colonised peoples

There is nothing new, or indeed controversial in this. Indeed, there is much to be celebrated in its recognition. For women, the personal has always been political and vice versa, and long should it remain so. The supreme con of the patriarchal divide between the private realm of home and hearth, and the public sphere of 'high politics' - the messy, subjective intricacies of the social fabric, and sexual and emotional life, set against the cool, objective clarity of matters of state and economic production - is that it was never substantively the case, even as it confined men and women's options. In actual fact - and as all women and a great many men - have always known, the rational, masculine worlds of politics, economics, war and diplomacy were always thoroughly intertwined with the private sphere: who you know, who you schooled with, who you sleep with, what you fear and, crucially, who has your ear, have been as much the hallmarks of history and the machinations of power as any grand intellectual theory.

More significantly, for women the personal has always been our route into public life, the means to access the 'masculine' sphere, develop our independent voices and engage with politics. Particularly from the late 18th century onwards, as industrialisation and colonisation exploded, it was in education, faith, childcare and philanthropy that women found the tools with which to became players in civic society. Long before women's suffrage found its wider audience, women - or rather, white, upper middle-class, well-connected and overwhelmingly respectable married (i.e. unthreatening) women, to specify the tight limits of this empowerment, such as it was - entered hitherto exclusively 'male' domains, by arguing from their moral status as women.

As mothers, sisters, daughters, pious guardians of the faith and custodians of morality more generally, women did what we have always done, particularly through our relationships with men: they found the nooks and crannies where power resides at the edges of the public sphere and consolidated their influence in the restricted spaces where it was possible. The arguments for widening and deepening female education, for example, were most accessible and persuasive when made, less on the basis of female equality of intellect and right to opportunity, than on women's need to be equipped to teach the next generation. How could women fulfil their calling as mothers of the Empire, if they were kept in ignorance? The simultaneous patronisation and idealisation of women as the font of English virtue and piety offered a similarly gendered platform of moral authority from which women could reach out, not only on behalf of their own children, but to 'less fortunate' women and children in wider charitable and educational work.

This empowerment had a clear dark side. The philanthropic 'English gentlewomen' found an expansive, often autonomous role in the British Empire, acquired in the context of helping to 'advance' her colonial sisters and perform missionary work more broadly. Many scholars have pointed to the exploitative function of such activities, which not only built on and perpetuated the same old racist hierarchies and assumptions of Western superiority, but in fact advanced the English women via the subjugation of colonised peoples: in the context of the colonial encounter and the power it offered, she became a 'third' sex, 'masculinised' and awarded an active, public vocation that was socially acceptable in a way more traditional political work would never have been.

More broadly, we can argue that such activism was inherently reactionary. That rather than agitating in the streets and corridors of power, demanding female liberation, such women accepted and regurgitated paternalist assumptions regarding a woman's role; acknowledging her legitimate jurisdiction to be restricted to the family, the home, the biological imperative. Yet this criticism speaks to a familiar argument regarding means and ends that for most of us ultimately comes down to ideological preference and calculations regarding effectiveness: there is a strong parallel, for example, with the Western-educated elites of colonial states in the 20th century who similarly adopted the language and ideologies of the dominator in order to argue their case for self-government.

Our 'female' characteristics and attachments are (in this privileged pocket of the world, at least) thankfully no longer perceived as the sole authority we bring to bear on political, economic or social issues. Yet this overwhelmingly positive article reminded me of the strong persistence of the 'woman warrior' image. The idea that our arguments are strongest, most 'winning' when we cite our 'private sphere' experiences as the font of our legitimacy: even the Iron Lady herself famously cultivated the persona of the nation's housewife, balancing the household budget, as a stroke of election genius. And I say this without disputing the value of such experience in the slightest: the personal and the political are truly intertwined and it is right and necessary that women's experiences around the family and home are taken every bit as seriously as work experiences beyond. My discomfort lies with the pervasive connecting of female competency and aptitude with our 'innate' female qualities - whether relating to child-rearing, household management or simply our more collaborative interpersonal approaches.

The damage done, I think, is twofold. First, in shoring up and replicating ingrained gender norms regarding emotional capacity, it alienates the vast swathes of us who have nothing in common with the stock character of the caring, sharing female social activist. I know many men, as I'm sure we all do, whose commitment to social equality, redistributive justice, health or education policy is every bit as personally and emotionally animated and heartfelt as any woman's. Men who are driven by their experiences, concern for their children or simply strong human empathy, as much as any abstract intellectual conception of justice. And similarly, I meet many formidable women whose working lives are absolutely as profit and status-driven as any City boy's - if not more so, given the persistence of a glass ceiling that often requires single-minded commitment and sacrifice to smash.

The low pay associated with 'female' and more flexible professions presents a self-fulfilling cycle - historically because particular work roles have tended to be devalued once women started doing them

So why do we persist with the notion that the female nurturing instinct is inherent to her political agenda? That her motives and actions come primarily from the heart rather than the head? I remember being struck by a small, unimportant detail during those ridiculous June days when every actual and prospective Cabinet member and their dog appeared to be jumping ship during the expenses scandal fallout. Reporting the resignation of Hazel Blears and speculating on who might be next, several media outlets thought it worth noting that Caroline Flint would, or would not, be standing down next because, or in spite, of the fact that "her friend" Hazel had just done so. This stuck with me (ah, the feminist's cross to bear! Barely a news item or TV programme may pass without the predictable snort of righteous indignation at Evil Patriarchal Subtext...), as I would struggle to come up with a real or imagined scenario in which it might be implied that a senior male politician's friendships might inform his resignation decision in any way at all.

Yet we still expect emotional ties to animate female activity, even at the very top. It is not wrong that they should - the cold compartmentalisation of our professional and personal lives has a lot to answer for - but it is retrogressive that we continue to view such social or familial ties and subjective perspectives as the preserve of us 'empathetic' and 'collaborative' women. We're not all like that. Many men are -quite likely many more would be, given the right working culture. And it wrong-foots us, furthermore, to happily emphasise these factors and assumptions of femininity when it suits us, only to cry foul when accused of weak female emotionalism/PMT rage/'nappy brain' and all those other tedious, dismissive pieces of nonsense.

Secondly, highlighting the strong, pervasive presence of women in the third sector as evidence of our greater campaigning passion conveniently sidesteps the significant probability that in this sector, as in other, even lower-paid caring professions, women dominate simply because this is where the economy has directed us. The low pay associated with 'female' and more flexible professions presents a self-fulfilling cycle - historically because particular work roles have tended to be devalued once women started doing them, while others have become 'men's' jobs once technology and shiny gadgets got involved. Who knows, perhaps men have simply been historically less interested in the caring or educational sectors but, again, this likely speaks to the way such roles have long been constructed as extensions of the female, 'private' sphere (except right at the top), in distinction to the 'real' work of state.

Certainly, female low pay relates in general to the historically specific, yet persistent, understanding of women's work as somehow supplementary; peripheral to the main 'family wage' due the male breadwinner. Whatever the tangled webs of causation, we retain strongly gendered sectors for reasons that can be considered anything but 'natural'. As one interviewee in the Observer piece notes, charity sector meetings are quite likely to involve 10 women and one man sitting round the table; "literally the inverse of the commercial sector", in which she was once told she'd make a good air stewardess. This woman was at that point a private practice lawyer and is now executive director of the human rights organisation Reprieve.

I'm looking for a world where the fierce protection of our loved ones and our custodianship for the next generation is a gender-neutral given

The skewed gender balances of both sectors are unlikely to be random, then, or harmoniously reached according to biologically-determined aptitude. They are informed by the many gendered distortions that persist and evolve regarding: the economic value placed on different sectors and jobs; childcare flexibilities; assumptions relating to status and social expectation; and the prevalent internalised understandings of male vs. female skills that plague the workplace more broadly. In this sense, to focus on innate female characteristics is to underplay the very real ongoing political, economic and social structures that channel women into certain areas of work and men into others (with all the consequences for job status and remuneration this inevitably entails).

Indeed, the very reason women are held to be so effective in campaigning roles is the mental toughness, multi-tasking and tactical agility that female disenfranchisement has historically given rise to. We had to be tough, sneaky and use asymmetric warfare in pursuit of the vote, legal equality, the right to free choice et al - and many of us still do daily - because there was simply no other path. As veteran campaigner Joan Bakewell notes in the article, "Women have ways of getting their own way without people realising." I suspect the subtext here reads "without men realising it". Call it 'womanly wiles' or call it emotional intelligence, the more creative, personal approaches women are associated with at work and home are neither exclusive to us, nor innate to our womanhood. They are socially, historically and economically structured and I'm not sure what we gain by waving them aloft as badges of honour from the moral high-ground when elsewhere we fight to be considered as individuals first and foremost.

Personally, I'm looking for a world where the fierce protection of our loved ones and our custodianship for the next generation is a gender-neutral given; where collegiality, creativity, lateral thinking, holistic lives, sensitivity and mutual respect are an everyday reality for all of us, not treasured as uniquely female traits. Anarchic, I know. In the meantime, hats off to those kick-ass women and men everywhere taking the political and commercial establishment to task and dumping horse-shit on Jeremy Clarkson's lawn as necessary: I salute you. In the words of the mighty Wonder Woman, "the world's waiting for you and the power you possess, in your satin tights, fighting for your rights" and long may it remain so.

Illustration by Francine Kizner

About the author

Mhairi Guild

Mhairi Guild is a lefty dreamer in arrested development, struggling to finish her overdue doctorate and secure gainful employment in the face of recession and indifference. She loves Camus and Greer on her bookshelf, pineapple on her pizza and beer in her fridge; she lives in London with her lovely, long-suffering partner

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