Will a women’s council help?

// 12 March 2009

Across the pond, President Obama yesterday celebrated IWD by creating a new Council on Women and Girls. He said:

The purpose of this council is to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy,” Obama said in a statement. “My administration has already made important progress toward that goal. I am proud that the first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. But I want to be clear that issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women’s issues, they are family issues and economic issues.

I like the way he framed that because to get popular support, these policies need to be made relevant to the widest group of people. As Lisa Belkin points out on the NYT, if the council does address issues such as unequal pay, maternity leave, childcare and work/life balance – everyone benefits, not just women.

Is such a Council needed in the USA or even the the UK? It’s main role is to coordinate the work of various agencies across government departments on issues that affect women disproportionately. But there is a danger, as Jen points out here, that remains merely a symbolic initiative and a tool for re-election.

I’m torn over whether this would be a good thing for Britain. It could very well become a symbolic body that pretends the government is being pro-women without actually doing much. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be an elected body and add to the litany of quangos that already litter the political landscape.

On the other hand, a permanent council could certainly help coordinate government efforts at a time such as the current economic crisis. It would also take the heat of certain MPs (Harriet Harman), who are forced to push forward equality legislation because no one else is making the case for it in government.

But here’s another problem, which the Americans don’t have: it may remove popular support for NGOs that push these issues. America has a vibrant civic culture where grassroots feminist organisations (among a range of NGOs) abound. Britain doesn’t. We have a few high-profile organisations like Abortion Rights and Fawcett Society (not a definitive list obviously), but nothing like the breadth and depth in the USA. A Council might make feminists in the UK even more complacent about pushing their agenda at government level. Possibly.

Comments From You

Evelyn // Posted 12 March 2009 at 10:09 am

I think overwhelmingly this must be viewed as a positive phenomenon – after all, as you rightly point out, the issues raised are those that affect everyone.

The problems, far from those you cite are that these issues should not be framed as ‘women’s issues’ rather than parent/childcare/equality issues. The fact that women are still assumed to be the primary carers of young children leads to well-intended but flawed materinity leave policies, where women are permitted 12 months leave, whilst fathers have to content themselves with only two weeks to bond with their newborns.

Considering your point about potentially weakening the US’ vibrant NGOs, surely the creation of a specific council devoted to their issues would serve only to promote these organisations into the political mainstream, and so make a more substantial impact on legislation.

Ellie // Posted 12 March 2009 at 2:18 pm

To be honest I doubt that such a group would have much of an effect. If they could successfully win funding for universal free childcare and rape shelters in every town then I would say go for it, but they will never have that kind of power.

Also, as you say they will be unelected and unrepresentative, grassroots feminism and activism will still continue because problems will still be here, problems which don’t have anything to do with public policy.

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 March 2009 at 2:39 pm

I think it’s a good thing, and we could definitely do with something similar in the UK.

I think we need more on all fronts: we could definitely do with more feminist/women’s rights NGOs, more grassroots activism and more attention within government.

Government action isn’t the be-all or end-all, but it can fulfill a function which it goes beyond what an NGO could do, because they’re within government. At the Progressive London conference in January, Anni Marjoram’s explanation of the role she held as women’s policy advisor to the mayor really illustrated the sort of work it’s possible for this sort of body to do, in continually calling others to account and forcing feminist issues into their agenda. It was particularly interesting how she described having the Met chiefs in her office, and making them explain what they’d done to combat violence against women, and how they were implementing changes. Just the fact of having to regularly explain what progress you’re making, that level of accountability, had a powerful effect, it seems. And we’ve seen that since the position has been abolished, along with other measures and funding, domestic violence incidents have risen, as have domestic violence murders.

Sunny // Posted 13 March 2009 at 2:45 am

Evelyn: “surely the creation of a specific council devoted to their issues would serve only to promote these organisations into the political mainstream, and so make a more substantial impact on legislation.”

Possibly, though one could argue many organisations (Emily’s List, Fawcett Society, Trade Unions) already work at government level and consult on that level.

The danger is that a government could appoint someone they can work with, who could put forward politically palatable ideas, and ignore grassroots bodies in decision making. That’s my worry too.

Ellie: Yes, I think you’re right.

Jess: yes, definitely agree with all of that too. I think having a champion in govt helps – as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett clearly are.

But there’s also the danger the govt appoints someone who only wants to climb the greasy pole rather than represent grassroots opinion.

to that extent, having civil society organisations are even more important I’d say. Like the F Word of course :)

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds