‘Suffragette’ shows feminism’s success – and its flaws

We should acknowledge that gender parity is progressing and some females are getting into positions of real and total power

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette'
Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in 'Suffragette'

Perhaps it was a weird alignment in the heavens of Venus and Mars, but in the last few days, expected and unexpected happenings have brought feminism into sharp focus. The film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter was released. Streep, in an interview, confessed she does not use the F-word to describe herself because she is married, has a son and loves men.

She must have smiled that lovely smile and twinkled as she ignorantly maligned the cause. (Dear, dear Ms Streep, just so you know, most of us Fems love our men and boys too. And they, in turn, understand and support our struggles. PS We like frocks, make-up, sex, cooking, babies, mothers in law and your romantic films.) On opening night, demonstrators rolled on the red carpet to protest against austerity measures and the closures of refuges for women and children escaping domestic violence.

Then Anita Anand, the smart BBC presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers, asked a pertinent question: Why does the film fail to show any women of colour who were part of this movement? She is author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, the story of the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh who lost his throne and land and Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British. Sophia joined the fight for votes, was ardent, effective and famous.

Then Charles Moore’s second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biography, just published, revived that old debate on whether she was the definitive icon for female equality. NO, NO, NO. In 1982, she said to Paul Johnson, a close confidant: “The feminists hate me don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

We have also seen the bid for power by Theresa May. Other female Tories may also try to disrupt the expected two-horse race between George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Finally, Women in the World came to town. This is a network set up by Tina Brown, previously editor of Vanity Fair and New Yorker and other powerful women who hold summits to discuss gender discrimination and equality. Nicole Kidman talked about the woman she became after Tom Cruise and Cara Delevingne candidly described the stress she was under when she was a young, fresh model. For a brief while, feminism went mainstream. Hurrah!

There are, of course, ongoing, forceful arguments and valiant campaigns around the world for female rights, equality, autonomy, freedom and security. In Britain, young activists such as Caroline Criado-Perez and Laurie Penny are more savvy, effective and sharp than most of us old libbers ever were.

Once in a while the messages get out there, even among people for whom feminism is either a red-lipped national peril or big fat joke with hairy legs. Women and girls are still held back, held down and sometimes destroyed in our advanced nation. But we also have to acknowledge that gender parity is progressing and some females are getting into positions of real and total power. The newly formed Women’s Equality Party, launching later this month, is pulling in tens of thousands of members and supporters. All good news.

This then may be the time for critical feminism. All of us who are in the struggle should now be able to look honestly at what women do when they reach the top and also at the unconscious exclusion of females of colour and those who are from the working classes or workless families, people “not like us”. High-profile, middle-class activists are extraordinarily concerned about boardrooms and parliament, pay and bonuses, hardly ever about lone mothers too poor to feed their children, discrimination faced by black and Asian women or exploited workers. It is necessary to criticise and sometimes damn women who do not care about other women, about men, children, a decent society.

Take Mrs May. She insulted, threatened and demonised migrants and refugees in Manchester. It was the nastiest oration of the conference, more terrifying than Enoch Powell’s speeches were, because he, unlike her, did not have the power to push through policies. Some feminists believe a woman who has broken through glass ceilings must always be supported. So they backed Thatcher, now May, Rebekah Brooks and others. Cherie Blair was once a human rights lawyer of some integrity. Today she gets rich by defending some of the most repressive regimes in the world. I brought this up at a conference and two women in the audience got fractious, branding me a traitor to feminism. It was impossible to persuade them that equality means applying the same rules for men and women in the public as well as private spheres.

A biography of the poet Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate has also just been published. The poet was great, but Hughes the man was monstrously selfish about sex and women. His first wife Sylvia Plath, also a great poet, was mentally and emotionally frail, sometimes unstable. Eventually she killed herself – he was in bed with another woman when she put her head into a gas oven. Later, Assia Wevill, one of his lovers, also killed herself and their young daughter. These tragedies are well known. Radical feminists hate Hughes and they have every reason to. But surely his female lovers too must take some of the blame? Like so many famous men, Hughes found lovers easily, women who never thought about the pain they were causing their own sex.

With the momentum on our side, we feminists can be both optimistic and more scrupulous. Hypocrisy, special pleading, outright unfairness and double standards should no longer be tolerated. The world will only change if we are honest about our failures and change ourselves when necessary.

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