Of the many accusations Prime Minister Theresa May has weathered over the weekend, I wonder if Harriet Harman’s “She may be a woman, but she’s not a sister” remark at the Labour Conference ruffled her even remotely.
Harman certainly meant to hit low. Women decrying and belittling each other’s commitment to “the sisterhood” – a fictitious vagina-based Freemasons-style secret squirrel society consisting of 3.2 billion other women globally – is one of our chief tactics for stepping on each other’s achievements. We do it all the time. Do I disagree with you on sex work, abortion or working hours? This is because, of course, I “hate women”. Would you prefer to stay home and spend your rich husband’s cash instead of work? Pfft, not much of a sister, are you?
Despite the chances of all women on earth agreeing perfectly on any matter at all being hysterically negligible, we still glibly egg ourselves on to believe in a universal “sisterly” charter. And I wish it existed, I really do. Life ensconced in The Sisterhood sounds eternally smooth, supportive and generally smashing; a bit like a long summer holiday in The Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants by Anna Brashares, or a brilliant episode of Sex and the City with a lot of brunch-based wisecracking, or at very worst an episode of Tenko where no one dies in childbirth.
It is grimly ironic how modern feminists continue to dump all the world’s problems on “the patriarchy”, a nefarious all-male band of conspiratorial willy-wavers who spend their waking hours securing each other the best jobs and making laws to benefit their own gender – yet these very same women believe the way to counteract this bleak point in history is to inflate the notion of an all-powerful “Sisterhood”. This leads to Harriet Harman moaning at the Labour Women’s Conference because another woman with a vastly different world viewpoint refused to do Harman’s bidding a few years ago, despite the fact they both had vaginas.
Make no mistake, the “no sister” jibe is not a throwaway remark. It aims to create a big stinky black cloud around the other woman’s persona. It’s not erudite, though: it’s just plain old bitchiness in Birkenstocks. The non-sister remark is the purest example of a dog whistle. It aims to alert other women to reject the non-sister’s whiffy reputation in droves. The non-sister is plainly working against women out of unnatural, jealous and mentally deranged reasons.
The non-sister probably has no female friends because she can’t keep them due to the great probability she’ll betray them, shag their husbands, or put her own needs, ambitions or beliefs before other women. “Not a sister” takes all women back to the schoolyard; she is the least popular girl in Brownies, the girl who can’t find a lunch seat and the girl left out of the pool party class invite. The fact that May can rise above this sort of mewling and isn’t slavish to being good and “sisterly” hints to me she is cut out for power.
If one believes that the sisterhood (i.e. all women) are going to hold you aloft at the hardest times, bereavement, divorce, job loss, mental breakdown, you are in for a terrible shock. What you will actually find is that women – exactly like men – are nuanced, idiosyncratic human beings sporting complex and diverse needs, agendas and shortcomings. Believing in the innate empathetic, harmonious nature of all women is like believing all gay men will, when push comes to shove, be able to help you with interior design. At best you’re an idiot and at worse a completely offensive one.
It would have been interesting for Harman to have ended her speech on May with a just-for-fun vote on who the attendees believed amongst Labour’s top women players to be unanimously “in the sisterhood”. Do all of Corbyn’s Fraggle-ish harem find each other’s feminism beyond reproach? Have I missed the moments over the past six months when “Blairite traitorous bitches” and Momentum’s feminist frontline have had some sisterly group hug? It’s most unsisterly of me to say all of this, but exactly like May, I can live with the flak.