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Laurie Penny: Decoys in boardrooms and pulpits won't fool the women of Britain


Feminism is the new tweed.

It's the latest Tory must-have accessory: just a little coy nod towards gender and equality can sex up even the dowdiest of political outfits and draw attention away from your worst features, like not having any actual plans to prevent a double-dip recession. David Cameron is desperate for the women's vote. Women in his parliamentary party like Anne Milton and Louise Mensch supposedly represent the new "faces of Tory Feminism", but their ideology seems to boil down to defending austerity and challenging abortion rights while wearing designer skirt-suits.

At a summit in Sweden this week, the Prime Minister claimed that the lack of women in British boardrooms is holding back the country's economic recovery, and pledged to do something vaguely about it. There are, of course, many types of feminism, and some of them are powerfully transformative – and some of them, like "Tory Feminism", tread the fine line between farcical and dangerous, on pretty kitten heels.

The notion that getting more women into boardrooms will somehow improve the economy airbrushes the fact that the boardrooms are still the problem. Talking about inviting more women into the FTSE 100 as a way of mitigating financial recklessness is patronising on two counts, suggesting both that women's naturally fluffy personalities will somehow soothe the testosterone-soaked trading floor, and that women who happen not to work in investment banks are stupid enough to swallow this nonsense as a substitute for actual intervention in the financial sector. Conservative women like Mensch, Milton and Theresa May have been open about the fact that "the Tories have never won without women", in other words "Tory Feminism" is primarily a vote-winning strategy. The point of feminism, however, is not to win women's votes, but to improve women's lives, and this Government is not unique in confusing the two.

Let's look at the numbers. There are approximately 1,100 people sitting on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, of which 15 per cent are women; the Government's desire is to see this increase to a whole 30 per cent. So we are discussing the careers of a maximum of 367 women. That's about enough women to fill the car park of a small branch of Waitrose. Meanwhile, there are over a million women out of work, the highest number since records began. Almost four million women work in the public sector, where pay cuts and pension cuts are due to hit the hardest.

Millions more women are being immiserated by the speed and savagery of austerity measures. The Fawcett Society describes the effect of cuts as a "triple jeopardy", whereby women will pay threefold for the Government's programme of wealth redistribution from poor to rich, women to men: once because of job losses, twice because of cuts in benefits and public spending, and three times because of care gap. Women will be forced to pick up the tab for the Government's cuts to basic care services. There will be elderly relatives to nurse, sick and homeless friends to care for, children to raise on tighter and tighter budgets as youth services vanish. Part of the reason the Government feels secure in making these cuts is that it expects women to do the work it no longer deigns to pay for, thanklessly, quietly and for free.

David Cameron still wants the women's vote. Of course, the Conservatives don't actually advocate equality on its own merits – the business case for feminism has to be made, hence Cameron's claim that "companies are run better if we have men and women alongside each other ... it's about quality, not just equality". The only women the Government seems truly to care about are those 367 women in that Waitrose car park. They're not the 1 per cent. They're not even the 0.001 per cent. They are a proportion of the working population so small as to be utterly irrelevant to any political body that did not want us to believe that improving life for people in the financial sector will somehow magically improve life for the rest of us.

Exactly the same trick is being played when men in positions of power talk about possibly allowing more women to become bishops, or possibly allowing a few more older women to retain their roles as BBC newsreaders once they are no longer universally alluring. These notional women are decoys – tokenistic appointments to put a female-friendly face on traditional structures. You can have as many lady bishops and lady bankers as you like, but that won't stop the church and the City from keeping women down. It's the difference between social mobility and social justice. Rather than raising up all women along with what Shulamith Firestone called our "sex class", we are supposed to be satisfied if a handful of women is allowed to scramble over the backs of others to stand alongside the men at the top.

Like most people who care about equality and sexual freedom, I am not half as worried about the lack of women bishops as I am about church groups being invited to set sexual health policy at the heart of government. Like most people who believe women's rights are about more than cheap political capital, I am not half as concerned about the number of women in the City of London as I am about the fact that the banking sector continues to be permitted to privatise its profit and socialise its risk-taking, leaving millions of low-paid working women and mothers to shoulder the burden of their financial recklessness.

Bear in mind that we have not actually seen any of these cosmetic changes yet. There are no concrete policies to invite more women into the pulpits or the boardrooms of top companies, and we have not been informed about any new appointments of older women to top roles at the BBC. So far, all we have is empty rhetoric about cosmetic changes.

A truly useful feminist movement within Westminster would need to be radical enough to talk to and about women earning less than £100,000 a year. That sort of movement is not unfeasible: all it requires is a sustained programme to recognise women's paid and unpaid labour at every level of society, understands women's liberation as inextricable from class struggle and values women's politics on more than a merely decorative level. Instead, we are offered "Tory Feminism" as window dressing – a venial attempt to divert our attention from the worst outrages of the most anti-woman British government in living memory.

For a party that claims to be feminist, the Tories seem to think women are stupid. They seem to believe they can enact policies to plunge millions of women into poverty while shoving a few ladies forward to pose and pout and smile for the cameras and mouth the party line, and women everywhere will gasp and squeal and vote Conservative. The women of Britain, however, can tell when politicians are faking it. We are not stupid, and we are not fooled by decoy feminism.