Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.
– Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics.
In her first PMQ (Prime Minister’s Questions) last week, Theresa May took aim at Jeremy Corbyn, ironising his welcome to her: “You refer to me as the second woman Prime Minister, in my years here in this House I’ve long heard the Labour Party asking what the Conservative Party does for women—well, just keep making us Prime Minister.” And while May’s comments drew laughter in Parliament, she has put her finger on an issue plaguing the left in the UK and beyond. And the left has a woman problem which extends far beyond the lack of a party leader uniquely, but also involves the elision of women’s voices, especially on issues concerning, paradoxically, women. And this sort of problem within the left runs from the political theatre all the way through academia and publishing. What a woman on the left is allowed to say is still largely administered out by males who either applaud or cast her out of the party. And this elision of women is taking place within government and publishing, both in the UK and the USA.
There is a pattern among many leftist publications which consider themselves to be “anti-sexist” to engage in patently sexist practices by shifting away from from issues that specifically affect women or by taking sides in debates where women’s bodies and lives are suddenly rendered commodity. Suddenly the tone of what is acceptable historical materialism shifts radically when women are pointing out issues that pertain to their reality. Quite suddenly there is no room for debate and where there is a need for discussion about issues that directly effect women, the left is largely abandoning the voices of women as both political constituents and political thinkers.
In recent years there has been one attempt after another another to shut down any debate when it comes to identity politics and we have moved from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum to I feel therefore shut the fuck up. And this trend can be seen across the board with callout culture persisting from sub-factions of the left which in turn results in the likes of certain writers publishing astute critiques of identity politics, only to suddenly change course when it comes to gender and the inclusion of women’s voices. As abortion rights in the US are in stiff regression and violence against females is increasing across the planet, women who have quite a bit at stake in the current political climate often find themselves at odds with the leftist political landscape. Specficall the United Kingdom and other anglophone countries, even as there is a growing parallel movement that is directly addressing materialism and patriarchy.
As the oppression of women is tied to the material reality of being female and not a product of that being female, feminist politics over the decades have been sidelined and resultantly women have been mostly abandoned by the left specifically when it comes to gender. Where the left traditionally rebuked identity politics, today selfhood is often embraced by the left as of a collection of personality traits cum political ideology. Scholar and feminist activist Jasmine Curcio addresses this polemic and the domination of men in leftist politics, especially around issues pertaining to feminism:
And so many years on, feminist discussions around the left continue to be subtly dominated by men and their perspective, with the aid of theoretical frameworks that marked disdain towards feminism in decades past. Men have become gatekeepers of feminist discussion, and many debates take place with ignorance, disdain, and sometimes subtle tactics of bullying. Phenomena that lie outside of the bourgeois-proletarian contradiction are not really taken on board as material facts, but either made to fit with constructed orthodoxy or they are discarded.
Paradoxically, when women point this out, the reality of sexism bites back and they are regarded as “bitches,” “whores,” and even shut down both on social media and in public forums. And after this interview ran, Curcio received a substantial backlash of attacks, stating, “That interview stirred up some snide comments and some slander from men I had never met —the worst misogynist stuff was moderated.” The tautological nature of sexism leaves women unable to speak for herself without being caste within age-old frameworks for understanding her as nasty, non-nurturing, unnatural, and even man-hating. And this translates quite seamlessly to current political bodies and debates within the left today.
In the UK, leftist politics is no different as the fate of women within the British Labour Party is still quite conflictive. Liz Kendall, Labour MP, has spoken out recently about the problems of sexism within the party: “There’s a lot of old-fashioned misogyny on the hard-left; you’ve only got to look at the comments about me during the leadership campaign. I was called a bitch, a whore, a see-you-next-Tuesday, as they say on Towie. All because my political views weren’t the same as theirs.” And the treatment Kendall received is not an isolated case by any measure.
Add to this the recent online abuse of women in the Labour Party, we see how women’s freedom on and offline is threatened by pure unadulterated sexism. The murder of MP Jo Cox, the recent death threats and office vandalisation against MP Angela Eagle, and the rape and death threats advanced towards myriad female Labour MPs (ie. Stella Creasey, Yvette Cooper, Diane Abbott, Jess Phillips and Naz Shah) demonstrate how women in the public eye are even more likely to be targeted with online and real-life abuse. So frequent are the abuses that 45 Labour Party MPs wrote to Corbyn on 21 July asking him to attend regular meetings with the Women’s PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) and to commit to three pledges: an “unequivocal” statement condemning campaigning outside MP offices; to “actively challenge” abusive supporters “which does not conform to Labour Party values”; and to hold senior figures “accountable” for attending events where such behaviour takes place.
Equally as troubling are the policies of the Labour Party which reflect another level of sexism. For instance, even though Labour Party policy does not support the liberalisation of prostitution, Corbyn came out in favour of legalising prostitution earlier this year. And instead of following through with the Nordic model which is more frequently being adopted by governments left of centre around the world, it would seem Corbyn has not taken that model into consideration whatsoever. These statements, couched as Corbyn’s “personal opinion” on prostitution, fly in the face of Labour Party policy for which many female MPs came down on Corbyn earlier this year to include former deputy leader Harriet Harman. And if you have any doubts as to the depth of this problem, just a cursory glance of The Guardian comments under any article dealing with women’s rights will give you a small taste of the misogyny that female politicians who seek to debate prostitution within the ranks of the left endure. One could easily suffer digital eye strain just by reading through all the cases of sexism within politics today.
Beyond these more overt demonstrations of institutional misogyny within Labour are the party’s internal economic policies which indulge sexism. Case in point, Corbyn’s proposal to introduce compulsory pay audits for UK companies with more than 21 staff members has not been followed through by his own office as Corbyn has failed to commit to such an audit. On 24 July it was revealed the reason for the non-disclosure of salaries within Corbyn’s inner circle is because there is a massive salary disparity between the sexes where males are paid significantly more than females. It is not coincidence that left-wing British media failed to report this matter; yet any woman who critiques this fact is viewed as hyper-sensitive and vituperative, as demonstrated on social media. More troublingly, many on the left do not accept that there is pay inequality of the sexes—to include many Corbyn supporters—despite the plethora of evidence (you know, facts) to demonstrate just this.
It would seem that even in 2016 it is still a woman’s lot to suffer rampant inequality in silence under the protracted appellations appointed to them by others, where the act of speaking for ourselves is already pre-scripted as being malevolent, “loud,” “bitchy,” or bigoted. Where Corbyn is perfectly capable of understanding class and intra-institutional wage disparity, the tautology of being a woman with a voice on this matter, even within the left, has completely escaped him. Indeed, being a woman on the left means having one’s subjectivities scripted for her (ie. how people approach, view, and interpret women is vastly different than a male interlocutor), a reality which in this day and age is sadly more and more commonplace. Well, let’s face it—Theresa May was right in asserting that the Conservative Party has at least less of a problem with supporting women in positions of power compared to Labour.
In the seventeenth-century, accusations of witchcraft in the provinces of Overijssel and Drenthe of the northern Netherlands were made by both men and women where the charges ranged from provoking miscarriage to eliciting diseases of crops. While women were blamed for natural or unexplained eventualities then, today a similar paradigm extends towards women’s voices regarding their bodies and lives. Dare women speak out against social structures in which they have a direct or symbolic stake, a contemporary replacement for “witch” is readily available and hurtled into the social and mediascape in hopes of marginalising, or even completely vaporising, their voices. Today we are living in an era where the artifice of woman is far more compelling as media fodder and as the meta-narrative for superficially framing the next potential president of the United States of America. As real, women hardly exists for the political left unless she is a cheerleader, complicit in the scripting by others of her social condition. Dare she speak she is bewitched, “caught” in a sequence of social misfortunes over which she has no say.
It is imperative that both publishers and political parties of the left address the voices of all women—even and especially when there are strong theoretical antagonisms—without resorting to brandishing these individuals with epithets reminiscent of witch trials from an era purportedly behind us, but discursively still very much in the present.