The Parliamentary debate on bombing IS/Daesh in Syria was brought to an intense and rousing conclusion by Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary. It was Benn rather than Tory Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who inspired the House of Commons — MPs endured Hammond and applauded Hilary Benn.
The commentariat relished the difference between Hilary Benn and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but also inevitably, perhaps, with his father Tony Benn.
It was as if they had not noticed Hilary Benn’s eloquent defence of his leader — as a politician and as a person — and his unrequited invitation to David Cameron to apologise for his ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slur.
And it as if they had not noticed that throughout Hilary Benn’s parliamentary life he has not been an echo of his father — that the Benn family has survived generational and individual differences with better manners than most.
Melissa Benn — the only girl among Tony and Caroline Benn’s children, an astute writer and activist — reminds us that ‘the Benns have something of a history of courteous exchange but also of opinions strongly held to and expressed. Often not exciting enough for rapacious press, looking for gossip, intrigue and networking and power plays.
She’s right: schism and ‘irreconcilable differences’ attract attention, whilst respectful, intelligent and peaceful co-existence doesn’t.
Hilary Benn is not his father.
This is not a dynastic drama; it isn’t a sectarian schism either.
Hilary Benn has always disagreed with Tony Benn and with Jeremy Corbyn about Britain’s wars.
That makes Benn’s appointment as Foreign Secretary by Corbyn a daring move; just as his appointment of Maria Eagle as shadow Defence Secretary is also interesting. They don’t agree on the war in Syria. They don’t agree on the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles.
So, they’re going to have to work it out.
The surprise is that they’re going to try. And they’re going to try in the knowledge that these issues are difficult because they are difficult, we should expect disagreement because they are among the most testing themes of our times.
Listening to the Syria debate and Benn, brought to mind not his father but Parliament itself and a sense that Benn was emancipated by the context — Parliamentary democracy at work.
I didn’t agree with him about the bombing. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has brought a genial tone to the Corbyn team, lost his touch a bit when he said Benn’s speech was like Tony Blair in 2003 when he argued for war in Iraq.
No, he wasn’t.
Benn wasn’t so much charismatic as effective: the performance was adroit, supple and smart. He didn’t overwhelm the honourable members with evangelism, he didn’t deceive or bully. He invited them to think, and to be available for persuasion. That’s what made his speech bracing.
Unlike, for example, David Cameron who de-humanised the enemy, Benn discussed some particulars — acts of violence animated by a special kind of manly excitement; an enemy that electrified by violence that is also thought-about and strategic: aimed not only at destruction but the theatre of terror.
That’s what made his allusion to fascism so interesting. Who knows if he’s right, but the word takes us to other modern — not medieval — ideologies of supremacist violence: the Nazis, Mussolini’s nationalism, racist lynching in the United States.
If he soared on this occasion it was because the occasion — the place, the time, the people — demanded it: here was Parliamentary debate at its best, and here was Hilary Benn doing his best.
Weirdly, the commentariat responded not by thinking, but by boxing the speech into its own discourses about power and politics. They’re missing the point: this isn’t about splits (whatever the ‘traitor’ twitters outside Parliament get up to).
Isn’t disagreement and debate what happens in political parties, in relationships, in families?
Westminster’s political culture isn’t used to this — witness the utter bewilderment about Scotland’s great independence conversation: households, friends, lovers dissented from each other — but they didn’t get divorced or die. They kept talking.
This is good politics, and Westminster and the commentariat should get used to it.
What we witnessed during the Syria debate was a party that was functioning; recovering from near death, from being eviscerated, hollowed out; from being ruled by diktat, by people whose anti-party politicking left Labourism too terrified to do what it is supposed to do: think, look right, look left, look right again and then go.
Back home. Mud to show for a mind-expanding sojourn at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay, a parallel event to the annual book jamboree that takes place every May in this town-of-many-bookshops.
HowTheLightGetsIn is only six years old, and it does what maybe nothing does in our culture — it brings great minds, ordinary minds, curious minds, philosophers, physicists, political theorists and activist scholars together — all of them as participants.
Speakers and listeners have access to each other, and the organisers ensure that book writers are available to their readers; theorists are available to congregate with…well…anyone.
There is a lovely democratic esprit.
I was fortunate to be doing both — talking (about End of Equality) and listening. This year, its spirit was signified by mud.
LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim turned up in baby-pink shoes (was she carried in a sedan chair?), as if her feet were her manifesto. By contrast, green wellies were de rigeur for the philosopher Mary Midgley, who was extraordinarily busy at Hay this year.
Midgley becomes exponentially more prolific with advancing years — she is 94 — as she smothers brittle Darwinists with the tough soft tissue of really wise, big knowledge and philosophical ‘good sense.’
I wish I could have got in to hear Mr. Scruff. Sold out.
“I think this is a wonderful place to come and release these things,” Mersini-Houghton told Observer journalist, Tracy McVeigh, “As a scientist you are isolated, and I have spent the past five months locked up with equations. It is wonderful to come here and see people’s eyes light up in front of you as they get it. The big scientific questions are just as interesting to everyone.”
She said it: this festival lets the light in. It’s a way of thinking — people gathering, listening, speaking, dancing, chilling — about philosophy and music and everything in between, is democratic: speakers mingle with everyone; heroic intellects get to share their thoughts with people like us, who are, of course, people like them.
To paraphrase John Ellis’ book, ‘A Theory of Everything’, HowTheLightGetsIn is a smart challenge to the lowering horizons and narrowing aperture of what passes for politics — it encouraged and enabled everyone to be interested in everything.
It is this impoverished process that gives men who want to rape women virtual impunity — individual immunity from prosecution; and that and thus a society that hardly knows or cares what happens to women.
It is not as if the police and criminal justice system don’t understand the politics of sexual crime and justice: In Britain we have emerged from three decades of dramatic discovery about the prevalence and meaning of rape, three decades of professional reviews and legal reform.
Until now, more and more women every year have come forward to report rape. But they have not been reciprocated by reformed policing or criminal justice systems.
In the 1980s, society was shocked by Roger Graef’s documentary on Thames Valley’s response to a woman reporting rape. In the 1990s the law and police processes were reformed. In the 2000s, Liz Kelly and her specialist scholars at London Met University reported that the rate of detection had slumped to the lowest ever; Betsy Stanko’s research into the Met’s files revealed shocking disdain for women reporting rape — and cases of known suspects who were never traced or investigated; the law was reformed, and it is as good as law on sexual crime anywhere.
To no avail.
I and others have been writing about this scandal for nearly a decade — here’s some of it:
“Observations on criminal justice — the shocking failure
when it comes to rape prosecutions.”
Shocking evidence is circling the desks of the police and the Home Office showing that many men reported to the police for rape are not investigated, and their crimes do not appear in police records – even though they have previous records of violent offences and sexual attacks on women. Men rape with impunity and immunity, and they can do it again and again. Furthermore, as long as men target women who have been drinking or young women under 18, there is a good chance that the police won’t bother to interview or investigate, and the allegations won’t appear “on the books”.
New research commissioned by the Metropolitan Police delved into the Met’s own case files: it not only analysed the victims’ fates in the criminal justice system, but for the first time checked out the histories of the suspects. No one had carried out an offender profile of alleged rapists before. No one had correlated the victims’ stories with the records of the accused. The results are shattering.
Researchers reviewed the files on 677 rapes reported to the London Metropolitan Police in two months in 2005, and followed up by tracing the suspects. A third of the reported rapes were “not crimed” – that is, they were not investigated or recorded as crimes, because they were not thought to involve an offence. But many of the suspects had “previous”. More than half of the men accused of raping women who had been drinking, where the cases were “not crimed”, had a history of sexual offences against women.
A third of suspects whose victims were under 18 were not investigated, but had histories of violent offending. Among those cases that were crimed, but didn’t get past the police investigation stage, were some with known histories of offending who were not prosecuted, “in the public interest”.
This is sorely embarrassing for the macho (and besieged) Home Office. The evidence shows that the police directed their gaze at the wrong people. “We concentrated on services for victims,” comments Richard Sumray, a magistrate member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, “but we did not concentrate on offender profiles.”
One of the country’s pre-eminent researchers into sexual crimes against women, Professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University, says the new findings are unprecedented. “This is unadulterated data that we’ve never had access to before.” It was Kelly’s research – based on the experiences of 3,500 victims – that in 2005 exposed the alarming collapse of the conviction rate. What was not apparent earlier (because it had not been correlated) was that men who like raping women do it over and over; they target their quarry.
It is the not-crimed category that is particularly sinister, officers giving up on cases without even checking up on the suspect. This is evidence that officials will want to keep out of the public domain, but which also vindicates reformers in the police service. The Met’s review — the largest of its kind — vindicates Kelly’s celebrated study that showed an unbroken increase in the numbers of women (and a few men) reporting rape in the past 20 years but a static number of convictions.
“The attrition rate [the rate of cases being not-crimed, not detected, or not pursued by the victim] is abominable,” comments Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who, as well as heading the Met’s cash-for-peerages inquiry, is also lead spokesman on rape for the Association of Chief Police Officers. “Rape is regarded as second only to murder, because of the violence and the violation, but most attrition takes place with us in the police,” he says. “My aim is to take best practice in scene management and forensics in cases like murder, and apply it to rape.”
The crisis comes from what Kelly calls a “culture of scepticism”. “The police are often quite willing to interview people who don’t support an account,” she says, “and they seldom follow up what supports it.”
If the not-crimed and attrition findings weren’t bad enough, the picture becomes even more disturbing when correlated with patterns of vulnerability among victims. The overwhelming majority of rape reports on the Met’s files – 87 per cent – are made by women whose characteristics make them vulnerable. Most are known to the perpetrators: acquaintances, partners and ex-partners; they are young; they consume alcohol or drugs; they suffer from mental illness. These categories attract police pessimism and a preoccupation with the virtues or vulnerabilities of the victim rather than the propensities of the perpetrators. This correlation appears to be decisive.
Pioneering research by Vanessa Munro at King’s College London transcended the ban on talking to British jury members by assembling jurors from the electoral register for mock trials. She found that although the law on consent was radically reformed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 – requiring defendants to show that they had taken steps to ascertain consent, and requiring that the alleged victims had the capacity, choice and freedom to give consent – it still didn’t help them greatly. Some jurors felt that, however intoxicated, “as long as a woman was conscious she’d have the capacity to consent or resist”.
Sumray reckons that the crisis is multidimensional: cultural and political, as well as a policing problem. The political arena, he says, has “to begin to influence how people think about this”.
There is good news: the promotion of specialists in the Met’s dedicated Project Sapphire, and greater respect and care extended to victims by sexual assault referral centres. The Met’s response to research is already palpable; it reduced the number of rape reports dismissed as false allegations from 10 per cent in 2005 to 4 per cent in 2006, in line with Kelly’s estimate.
According to Kelly, however, given the sexism of the culture and British institutions: “Yes, a woman can get better care, but she still can’t get justice.”
“In exploiting the rape crisis for political capital,
Cameron has ignored a wealth of new research.”
David Cameron is right to talk about rape. Its prevalence and prosecution are a crisis. And it is full of complexity. But politicians, especially Tories, don’t do complicated. Cameron has done a typical Tory thing: invoke the disaster of rape for a moralistic, collapse-of-civilisation-as-we know-it populist agenda that has nothing to do with contemporary culture or policing. It ignores his own party’s history: Tory law-and-order debates have been animated by women’s laments about the beastliness of men since the 1930s; and it ignores the remarkable discoveries emerging from research into policing.
When Cameron talks about the rape crisis as a sign of “moral collapse” and sexualisation of the culture he is being lazy. Rape rates are not new: rape is nothing to do with “permissiveness”; it is a crime of dominion, as old as patriarchy itself. To pledge tougher laws exemplifies the Tory tradition: exploiting women’s humiliation and harm to promote populist – authoritarian – politics.
But explosive evidence from Scotland Yard – hitherto unpublished – shows the problem is not the law. The problem is still canteen culture, and it is still sexism that muddles the judgment of juries.
The reformed Sexual Offences Act, heavily influenced by women’s experience of sexual crime and by scrupulous (often feminist) research, is not to blame. The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees: the problem is what happens when a woman makes that first call to the police. And what happens at every step thereafter – right up to the appeal court. It is the “demonisation of women as a set of victims”, says the Acpo rape spokesman, Dave Gee.
Buried in those processes is sinister evidence that a significant proportion of perpetrators are simply not investigated. Policing has got better at treating victims humanely. But it has been mesmerised by the worth of the victim, and averted its gaze from many of the suspects. The Met has been contemplating this evidence for nearly a year. It should have made it public. It should have seen it not as a source of more shame but as a resource for reform.
The story starts with a 2005 survey of rape victims, conducted by Liz Kelly, Jo Lovett and Linda Regan from London Metropolitan University. Their study, A Gap or a Chasm?, found that more women than ever had the confidence and courage to report rape, but fewer than ever achieved justice, not least because their cases entered a “culture of scepticism” and investigative inertia.
Acpo and the HMI inspectorate set out to find out why. Their report was published earlier this year, followed by a Home Office study of eight forces last July. All confirmed the study’s findings.
Next came some remarkable research at the Met. An independent team looked into all 677 rapes reported to the Met in two months of 2005. What they discovered challenged conventional wisdoms about victims and perpetrators. It found that men who like raping women target their victims and that these women cluster into the very groups least likely to attract police attention: those under 18; in present or past relationships with the perpetrators; living in domestically violent environments; under the influence of alcohol; suffering mental ill health. These groups constitute nearly 90% of reported rapes. Between half and a third of these reported rapes were not “crimed” – they don’t appear in the books. It gets worse. In half of the not-crimed cases involving alcohol, for example, the suspects had not been investigated, despite having a history of sex offences.
“Those in most need of caring and sympathy in the criminal justice system get smacked even more,” says Professor Betsy Stanko, who conducted the Met study. There is, then, a scandalous synergy between men who like raping women and police pessimism.
If the police haven’t made their evidence public it is because they don’t want to discourage women from reporting rape, and they can’t rely on politicians to get the story right. As Liz Kelly has pointed out, Cameron could have done something useful: he could have said the culture is hard to change, that appeal court judges’ prejudices are ricocheting through the criminal justice system, but that the Home Office and senior police officers are having a go. He could have said the huge investment in terrorism should be spent on “ordinary domestic and sexual terrorism”.
Tories – usually to great effect – have enlisted the experience of women as the victims of men, but never to empower women, and never to challenge the masculine cultures that sponsor crimes against women.
“The rape review does a disservice to women from whom
police and courts have averted their gaze.”
Will more women be encouraged to report rape if they’re told that Britain’s conviction for rape isn’t 6% but 58%? Undoubtedly the police would be able to feel proud, rather than ashamed, and the government could proclaim it had made a difference. But will this statistical manoeuvre empower women? Or will it avert our gaze from the failures of policing culture?
The Stern Review, published this week, argues that burying the bad news will encourage women to report, yield more convictions in the courts, and raise the level of optimism about policing. But why would it? The problem isn’t women: while only 2,800 reported rape in 1988, this was up to 13,093 by 2008; their courage and confidence grows year by year. Yet the police response has not raised conviction rates, and institutional scepticism rewards men who like raping women with impunity.
It was this paradox – more women reporting rape, reciprocated by the lowest conviction rate yet in the courts and, therefore, the dismal knowledge that society was averting its gaze from the most violent sexism– that prompted solicitor general Vera Baird and leader of the house Harriet Harman last summer to commission this review by Vivien Stern. She has done a disservice to the ministers. This could have been a great moment, says sexual violence expert Professor Liz Kelly – a moment to match Sir William Macpherson’s critique of institutional racism in the police. It has been squandered. During the last decade there has been a revolution in what is known about rape – to whom, and how it happens, and what happens next.
In 2005 the Home Office published research by Kelly and her colleagues at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit. In it, victims disclosed widespread scepticism among police officers. Rape is unique: women tend to know their assailants. But 15% of reported rapes are not even recorded as crimes. A further 20% of complaints are withdrawn – many women told researchers they had been encouraged to quit by police officers. A further 23% fall through; about a quarter of suspects are charged. Some 12% reach court, and finally only about 6% attract conviction for rape.
Instead of confronting that forlorn process head-on, Stern morphs into Pollyanna. Justice isn’t everything, she says, reassuring us anyway that half of the minority of cases that get to court result in a conviction for something or other. Worse, she suggests that we should now investigate the problem of false allegations. The police have already researched that, and in any case decent detection should deal with it.
Senior police officers were not so awed by the evidence. The Association of Chief Police Officers, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office and the Met itself all looked into what was going on. They found some excellent practice but also routine, endemic failure to properly investigate rape.
The Met’s research was dynamite. It focused on more than 700 rapes reported over two months in 2005. Victims were clustered in groups of “vulnerability” – women who didn’t attract police interest or investigation. The Met took another look. A significant proportion of the men had never been checked out or tracked down. And a significant proportion, it emerged, already had records of violence and sex offences.
This is the dangerous matrix that alarmed ministers: men who like raping women target those who won’t engage police attention or confidence. That’s what Stern should have exposed: this toxic correlation, the institutional sexism that disarms rape investigation.
Check out this chilling review by scholars, into decades of troubled inquiry, reportage, research and reform of the dismal outcomes for women reporting rape and other sexual crimes to the police:
2011 – The Journal of Criminal Justice Research (JCJR) – Volume 1, Number 2
CRITICAL ISSUES IN RAPE INVESTIGATION: AN OVERVIEW OF REFORM IN ENGLAND AND WALES
Miranda A.H. Horvath, University of Surrey
Stephen Tong, Canterbury Christ Church University
Emma Williams, Metropolitan Police Service
….Criminal investigation is …based on discretionary decisions made by detectives. Reiner (2000: 93-94) points to “police property” as a category of crime left to the police to deal with by the “dominant powers of society?. Within this category are a group identified as ”rubbish”, reflecting “messy”, “unworthy” offences that maybe be perceived as the “complainants fault”. Crimes that can fall within this category include rape, domestic violence or hate crime…
…“messy” investigations (long protracted cases where the officer may have some doubts regarding the integrity of the complaint), or unworthy of attention (the officer believes the event is not an offence but a private matter, or a trivial event) or finally the complainants fault (the officer believes the complainant contributed to their own victimisation) …
….The belief that investigative work simply required “common sense” with low levels of education, the lack of research aimed at improving investigative practice, the slow pace of change to past and current criticisms and evidence of a continued presence of negative attitudes towards marginalised groups remain barriers to improving investigative standards in England and Wales.
…Although some progress has been made especially in the care of victims and some re-shaping of the law to reflect modern notions of sexual autonomy many of the reforms have failed to be effective or have not been fully implemented.
Key criminal justice reforms in the last thirty years in England and Wales.
…In the 1980’s criminal justice reform was spurred on initially by Roger Graef’s documentary “A complaint of rape”, which showed oppressive interviewing of a rape victim by Thames Valley police officers and subsequently by a joint publication from the Women’s Aid Federation and Women Against Rape that suggested detailed requirements in police procedures in the investigation of rape. This resulted in the Home Office issuing a number of circulars (25/83 and 69/86) requiring police to revise their procedures.
The nineties began with significant changes in the law…The nineties ended with a Sex Offences Review, which began in 1999. The review aimed to achieve “protection, fairness and justice? within the Home Office’s overall aim of creating a “safe, just and tolerant society” (Home Office, 2000b). It sought to review sex offences in England and Wales and make recommendations to provide much more coherent and clear sex offences, ensure perpetrators are punished appropriately and abide by the ECHR and Human Rights Act so as not to be discriminatory.
The Sexual Offences Act (SOA) 2003 came into effect from May 2004: Amongst the many changes it Act introduced are the meaning of rape to include oral penetration as well as vaginal and anal with the penis; a legal definition of consent; children under thirteen years old can never now legally consent to sexual activity.
…Crown Prosecutors took over deciding if the defendant should be charged in serious cases including rape. This is just one of many moves in England and Wales which seem to be developing best practice towards a more American style approach to dealing with rape where investigators and prosecutors work closely on cases, continually consulting and advising one another.
….The 2007 HMCPSI report assessed the progress against the recommendations in the 2002 inspections:
…despite the many efforts directed at improving and making more consistent responses to victims the picture does not appear to have changed substantially over the last decade.
The review of the Metropolitan police rape cases by Prof Elizabeth Stanko discovered four categories of vulnerability – victims appeared to be targeted:
In 87% of the cases analysed victims displayed more than one of these vulnerabilities, this was confirmed in a subsequent study using data from the same force but from a different time period (Horvath & Kelly, 2009), and patterns of attrition differed depending on the type of vulnerability involved.
Police work has been hindered by performance regimes influenced by efficiency savings and private sector principles of measurement that do not necessarily recognise the complexities or duties of public sector practitioners particular in the context of the investigation of sexual offences.
Reports of the horrendous death of Bijan Ebrahimi — a disabled man living in Bristol — seem doomed to point in all the wrong directions. He was murdered — beaten and torched to death — by neighbours who spread the rumour that he was a paedophile.
Bijan Ebrahimi, a ‘caring loving and unselfish’ man according to The Independent (Photo by Nicholas Razzell)
But the rumour could have been staunched by the police who investigated the allegation and found no basis for it. And police could have talked down Mr Ebrahimi’s assailants had they done their primary duty to the public: to keep the peace.
But the murder of Mr Ebrahimi exemplifies the toxic mix of muddle, indifference and fury that surrounds the issue.
The story of Mr Ebrahimi’s demise really begins with the authorities’ failure to ensure public safety on his estate in Brislington, Bristol. He’d complained about children damaging the flowers and apparently, in frustration at his failure to engage anyone to stop this, he began taking photographs of the children spoiling his garden.
According to The Independent Mr Ebrahimi had been harassed by ‘youths’ attacking his flower basket. He called the police, he took photographs of the perpetrator, he defied police advice to stay inside his flat — effectively making him a prisoner in his own home — and when police finally arrived on 12th July a crowd gathered around the flat and shouted ‘paedo’.
Police arrested Mr Ebrahimi, checked out the allegations and found no evidence whatsoever, and returned him back to the flat where, by then, he was living amidst vital hostility.
On 14th July Mr Ebrahimi was dead — he had been beaten and torched. Several members of Somerset and Avon police service are the subject of disciplinary action and both the police and the local authority are scrutinizing the sequence of events.
What is apparent already, however, is that a disabled person’s life has been ruined and then taken; the primary duty of the police, public safety and security, was neither contemplated nor implemented.
When he was returned to his home, his angry neighbours were not addressed, they were not disabused of their prejudices, and the ‘youths’ were not called to account.
What is community policing if not this?
Was this case a sign of a society gone mad, obsessed by paedophiles, suspecting abusers of lurking behind every hedge?
Well, no, actually.
Is Rochdale so different from anywhere else? In 2012 a group of men were jailed for abusing at least 47 girls — even though evidence had been available to the authorities about these predators since 1991.
Is Oxford so different from anywhere else? In 2011 the police investigated evidence that a group of girls had been sadistically abused by a group of men — despite the efforts of some of these girls to tell their story to the authorities for eight years. It was the girls, not the men, who had been stigmatized.
In West Yorkshire, a group of men was jailed in 2008 after organizing the abuse of an estimated 50 girls at two schools. Did no one notice?
In the very week that the trial of Mr Ebrahimi’s tormenters was reported, the Labour MP Emily Thornberry announced that the investigation of rape and sex offences had dropped: the number of rapes referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2012-13 was 5404 — that is 2700 fewer than in 2010-11.
Thornberry commented that there has been a steady decline in the number of cases being referred to the CPS by the police, despite a steady rise in the number of people feeling confident enough to go to the police.
The current number of referrals to the CPS is the lowest in five years.
Margaret Thatcher’s friends and enemies would say: she’s just like a man! She is the best man among them!
Uniquely in the public mind she belonged to one sex yet could be either. But she was not like a man; she was more than a man: a prime minister, a warrior and (allegedly) a housewife. Men are warriors and prime ministers but they are not housewives.
Part of women’s pleasure in Margaret Thatcher was everything to do with gender and her performance of power. But what did that say about femininity and its changing forms?
Thatcher was given the opportunity to engage with women’s political history, and she spurned it. For that would have involved acknowledging that first of all it was a struggle; a struggle to reach beyond the boundaries of domesticity to embrace power in the public sphere as well as responsibility in the private; and it would have posed the question: what was her own commitment to the political struggles of women in her own time?
All of that was impossible for Thatcher.
She insisted, ‘The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone for ever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.’
Margaret Thatcher invokes only the idea of the housewife, not the lived experience, she does not refer to her work, her isolation, her sacrifice, her other longings.
She made the domestic visible – but she made it the experience of women. But in making it visible she also rendered invisible the housewife also engaged in waged work and the contradictions experienced by the wageless housewife.
State support is reconstituted as an inducement to sloth. Women’s powerlessness is suppressed in her division of society into two classes – powerful state bureaucratic elites and the manipulated masses, including trade union ‘barons’ and ‘bully boys’.
‘We never went on demonstrations or on strike,’ she said.
Thatcher’s politics are patriarchal, but that doesn’t make her a man.
She shows how femininity is a production: femininity is what she wears, masculinity is what she admires.
She puts femininity and power on display. It is not femininity, it is buccaneering masculinity that is evoked in her celebration of Victorian values, earlier prime ministers, merchant venturers, philanthropists… ‘This is a nation built on the success of the merchant venturers. Men who sailed into the unknown to carry our trade and bring back wealth to our people.’
Margaret Thatcher seeks something not given to women: valour.
She borrowed it – during the miners’ strike, the Falklands war, the resistance to détente…
‘I stand before you tonight in my evening gown, my face softly made up, my hair gently waved…the Iron Lady of the Western World! Me? A cold warrior? Well, yes…’
One of her advisers, Patrick Cosgrave, thought that some women who had been Labour voters might have been touched by the women’s Liberation Movement, and might be engaged by an emphasis on Thatcher’s sexual identity. But she ‘turned the scheme down flat’.
Many Conservative women felt disappointed that Thatcher did not empower women in the party. She was the triumph of an older tradition, albeit one that she herself transformed. She did not follow feminine archetypes in the Conservative Party, she preferred the prototypical patriarch: Churchill.
She was a model neither of traditional femininity nor feminism, but something else:
She offered feminine endorsement to patriarchal power and principles.