This week, courtesy of Nick Clegg, I got the opportunity to learn a new word for testicles. For anyone interested, the word is “cojones” – used by Clegg to explain his choice in wearing the Elle/Whistles/Fawcett Society “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt this week: “Men who actually treat women as equals are the ones with more cojones.” Now, there are plenty of arguments to be had about whether he should be equating masculinity and power to biological essentialism, along with other arguments about how feminist a pricey slogan shirt is coming from an industry that arguably does the subtle work in objectifying women in terms of the way they internalise their sense of self, but it is always good to add to the swearing vocabulary.
A far bigger deal than Nick Clegg’s bollocks, the main controversy of course has been Cameron refusing a reported 5 times to don the shirt for a publicity picture. It makes political sense not too, of course, in that his main threat at the moment is coming from the far right, and if he associates himself with the F word there is a good change Farage and the other big boys will laugh at him for being bullied by harridans into alligning himself with the struggle for equal pay, an end to domestic violence, a world free from rape, safe abortions and all the other nonsense women’s libbers come up with if they spend too much time thinking about the political issues best left to men and not enough time cleaning behind the fridge.
Cameron was absolutely right not to wear the shirt for a bigger reason than that though – it would make him a complete hypocrite.
News has come through from the World Economic Forum this week that the UK are slipping in the annual world rankings for gender equality on the basis of gender parity for education, work and health (note – no nation has gender equality so the measurement is how close they get – Iceland are closest). We’ve fallen from rank 18 to rank 26 – behind Nicaragua, Bulgaria and Burundi – and it is no surprise, given that women’s wages fell by £2.7K this year, and the gender pay gap got bigger (to over 15%) for the first time in years. Austerity means that wages are in general falling in real terms against the cost of living, but for women the drop is getting bigger and bigger. Not only is Cameron doing nothing about the widening pay gap, his policy of mass cuts and redundancies in the public sector have catalysed the process, and for many the axe is still to fall. A shift from unionised work in the female dominated private sector to the fragile and often casualised private sector means a pay cut, alongside the changes in conditions.
When people look back on the coalition government it will be seen as a time marked by industrial unrest and protest. The media narrative on this has been pretty clear – the battles going on have been between on the one hand the sensible government, handed the poisoned chalice of austerity by the reckless spending of Blair and Brown, and on the other hand, a shabby array of petulant and workshy trouble-makers, from the unions, to the students, to the benefits scroungers.
A closer look at the real battles being had in the past few years reveals that the real battles have been embedded in gender (and class, and race, and disability), however. When we look at what has been going on with trades unions, we see in the pensions fight the biggest piece of majority female industrial action the country has ever known, with 2.6 million walking out. We see the Care UK strikers taking all out action for weeks and weeks, and the stand-off over education between the public school boy and a workforce where not only union members but union leaders are female.
And it isn’t just in smashing workers where Cameron has a real problem with women, or where he has met the grass roots of resistance. It may still be Owen Jones and Russell Brand getting column inches for their opinions on austerity, but from the bedroom tax resistance which saw thousands on the streets in protest against the attack on council housing, to the E15 mothers occupations against social cleansing, to the powerful visual message of DPAC protestors chaining together wheelchairs to draw attention to the devastating impact cuts and benefits changes have had for the disabled, to the arrests and suspensions of student activists defending the right to free education, community action has seen women come to the forefront of the fights against this government.
There is so much more that we could talk about. We could look at how the cuts to domestic violence shelters see thousands turned away, understaffed maternity units putting mothers and babies at risk, sure start centres closing – or we could look at severe under-representation in Westminster and the “calm down dear” culture there which sees women’s views ridiculed and dismissed.
It would take way more than a designer t-shirt to sort all of this out. Women’s equality can only really be reached in a culture of universal equality – a government with enough “ovaries” to take on the old boys network, the media machine, and the poisonous hegemony of austerity and everything it means if you are non-male, non-white, non-upper class, non-able bodied, non-cis, non-straight. We need a government with the ovaries to commit to socialism, as that is the only way to commit to real social democracy.
In the mean time, Dave was right to avoid a shirt proclaiming “this is what a feminist looks like”. Not because he is a bit unsure about how he feels about what the word means, but because franky it would be a complete bag of cojones.