Tag Archives: feminism

Witch-hunters

 

Peter Ellis cases rises from the dead

New Zealand’s child abuse controversy: sex offender gets to the Supreme Court

A case that flooded New Zealand’s media a quarter of a century ago came back to life when the Supreme Court took the radical decision on 2 September 2020 to hear a third appeal by Peter Ellis against his conviction and imprisonment for sexual offences against children in a Christchurch creche – despite his death a year earlier.

Parents were horrified – including mothers who had initially resisted their children’s complaints about Peter Ellis, who blamed themselves for their children’s sudden, alarming behaviour, and who, confronted by their children’s persistence, were eventually persuaded.

It was grim, too, for children who had been the prime witnesses in the criminal trial and who were faced yet again, with a crusade to impugn their testimony – evidence that had been accepted by judge and jury in a criminal trial in 1993, two Appeal Courts and a judge-led independent review in 2001. Their evidence had been vivid, robust, consistent and accepted. And for three decades it has been traduced by Ellis’s supporters and advocates of the notions that children are  susceptible to suggestion and that child abuse is an urban legend whipped up by witch-hunters. The case was a cornucopia of vehement conflict during the 1990s about children’s evidence, memory, professional practice, witch-hunts, moral panic, feminism, child care, everything.

Peter Ellis had been an unsettled, flamboyant New Zealander in his late 20s who’d been in trouble with the law before he had the good fortune to be allocated a job in Christchurch Civic Creche in 1986 as part of his probation.

It was a time when New Zealand, like the UK and many other countries, was reforming its approach to childhood adversity. In the government published a review that announced that ‘ill-treatment and neglect are not uncommon and occur in all sections of our society,’ it introduced the 1989 Children and Young Persons, and their Families Act, and appointed a Commissioner for Children. This was also a time when men were being encouraged to work in a field they’d hitherto avoided, child care.

According to a judicial inquiry into the case by Thomas Eichelbaum, Ellis was known as ‘an outgoing, uninhibited, unconventional person,’ sometimes ‘risqué and outrageous.’ He was gay, but that was no bar to his job; he was trusted by many parents, ‘although according to what children said in their interviews, his boisterous games, tricks and teasing were not universally appreciated.’ His friend and advocate, Lynley Hood, noted in her 650-page bestseller on the case, A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case, that he was also a drinker – he’d have a drink at lunchtimes whilst working at the creche.

It all began in 1991 when a boy told his parents that he ‘hated Peter’s black penis’. (Peter Ellis was white). The remark was reported to the creche, Ellis was suspended, an investigation began, parents were alerted and over the next 2 years 118 children were interviewed. Most made no allegations of abuse, but 20 children did. In June 1993 Ellis was convicted and jailed for 10 years for abuse, including penetration.

In 1994 Ellis appealed. The appeal was dismissed. In 1999 he appealed again – according to Lynley Hood, he believed that the children’s evidence ‘had been given a weight and confidence to which it was not entitled’, and furthermore it had been given ‘unjustified credibility because of misconceptions about children’s evidence’; the evidence should have been treated at least with the greatest of caution and at best by total exclusion.’

Memory test

The story had flooded the media, Ellis acquired ardent champions, notably Lynley Hood, some alleged mental instability in some parents and the malevolence of child protection professionals, who were accused of going to conferences and contaminating each other, children and parents with their ideas, of being feminists or christians, and of being wrong.

The case became a test of children’s credibility. Their evidence was subjected to intense pre-trial assessment and argument, a criminal trial and two Appeal Courts. The second appeal in 1999 had relied heavily upon submissions by two eminent scholars – frequent witnesses for the defence: Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck, whose research focused on children’s suggestibility. The appeal was dismissed.

It was a classic case of the child sexual abuse backlash, the memory wars’ and what the American political scientist Ross Chiet calls the witch-hunt narrative.  

The Eichelbaum Report

After Ellis was released from prison he resolved to go on making his case, now for a free pardon and Royal Commission of Inquiry. The Ministry of Justice didn’t concede a Royal Commission, but it commissioned an independent inquiry by former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

His task was to investigate and report on current best practice in interviews with children and the investigation of multiple abuse cases, and to assess whether the Civic Creche case had been conducted accordingly. He was also required to consider several other inquiries, including Cleveland and Orkney, and Britain ’s Memorandum of Good Practice regulating interviews with children.

Here’s what he concluded: During the trial the defence argued that the questioning of the children had been oppressive. He acknowledged that, ‘the ideal position would be if the evidence of the complainants in such cases arose clearly and precisely, without any previous questioning, but it would be unreal to have any such expectation.’ It was also acknowledged that parents had been talking to each other, but the judge in the criminal case had not been persuaded that this had a ‘deleterious’ effect on the children’s evidence.

The defence claimed that the prosecution had been selective in its presentation of the video-taped interviews to the court, and withheld some disclosures that were deemed outlandish. The trial judge had allowed the defence to play any or all of the tapes to the jury. In the event, the defence played some of the tapes. Eichelbaum commented, ‘This merits emphasis, since there seems to be a common misconception that the jury was unaware of the bizarre allegations’.

Eichelbaum enlisted two international experts to assess the children’s interviews: Prof. Graham Davies, an expert on children’s testimony, and a contributor to Britain’s Memorandum of Good Practice, a guide to the conduct of interviews, and a Canadian psychologist, Dr Louise Sas, a specialist on the impact of trauma and the conditions in which children disclose sexual abuse.

Prof Davies did not find any evidence to support contamination, he thought some interviews were too long or repetitive, but he concluded that there were few gross violations, and by the standards of 2000 the quality of the interviews stood up ‘surprisingly well’, in fact, the standard was ‘exceptional for the time.’

Dr Sas regarded the child witnesses as reliable, and she ‘expressed the view that there would probably have been more convictions, had the contamination issue not been given such prominence.’

Lay to rest

Eichelbaum concluded that, the formal interviewing was ‘of a high standard for its time. Even by present day standards it was of a good overall quality. The interviews did not meet best practice standards in every respect, and if that degree of perfection were the test, few if any interviews of this kind would pass.’

His report offers a full account of the children’s allegations, their context and timing. An alternative account is provided by Lynley Hood’s book, A City Possessed. It invoked medieval witch hunts to argue that child abuse is ‘a major folk tale theme’ that now emerged as ‘urban legends.’ She insisted that – contrary to the evidence – most abused children ‘disclose voluntarily’ and most ‘suffer no long-term harm’.

Quiet Christchurch, she wrote, had been seized by moral panic and mass hysteria, an ‘inferno’ fanned by a coalition of feminists, child protection professionals and Christians and implausible children’s stories.

Hood had no evidence that was not available to jurors and judges. They were just wrong, she wrote. What she did have, however was disbelief. The problem was not sexual crimes against children, but ‘the models used by Eichelbaum, Davies and Sas that coerced children and ‘may seem in themselves to be forms of abuse.’

In the end, Eichelbaum had counselled that quality of interviews had been exhaustively ‘traversed in detail’ and revisited by a total of seven judges, ‘Mr Ellis’s case has had the most thorough examination possible.’ His wish, he said, was that the case ‘should now be allowed to rest.’

But it wasn’t allowed to rest.

In July 2019 the Supreme Court allowed Ellis another appeal. But then he died. In September 2020 the Supreme Court made the radical announcement that the case would go ahead – on the basis, in part, of the Maori tikanga tradition that a person’s prestige and reputation endures after death and extends to the person’s wider family.

The expert reports provided to Eichelbaum concerned the efficacy of the interviews with children, their memory and reliability and the implications of their behavior in the context of the abuse. The experts enlisted by Peter Ellis revisited the enduring debates about trauma, memory and suggestibility. These, said the Supreme Court, ‘raise issues of general and public importance and significant issues.’

These ‘significant issues’ have dominated debates about child sexual abuse for decades. Psychologists in New Zealand have noticed the alarming rise of applications to the courts, ‘mostly by defence counsel,’ to admit expert evidence about memory. Research published by the specialists Suzanne Blackwell, Fred Seymour and Sarah Mandeno, on applications covering the last 20 years, published in the summer of 2020 found that these were ‘almost exclusively in the context of sexual violence trials.’

The doyen of American law and psychology Thomas D. Lyon  explains in his 2019 essay, Child Witnesses that the overwhelming ‘difficulties children encounter in disclosing abuse’ leads most of them to remain ‘silent and only the most forthright children to disclose.’ Very few pre-schoolers make it to criminal court and as a result, investigators and the criminal justice system, typically encounter only children who are ‘unusually willing to disclose but susceptible to pressures to deny and recant.’

So, in New Zealand, the evidence of Ellis’s victims, who had been ‘unusually willing’ to speak, were to be excavated again: like the undead, never laid to rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Dreams …Greens and Gender

July 2020

ON BEING NICE – DREAM ON

Green Party Visual Identity

Molly Scott Cato is one of the Green Party’s popular politicians, an economist, and until recently an admired Euro MP for the South-West. She is likely to be elected to the party’s executive in forthcoming elections where – many of her supporters have been hoping – she will confront the bitter conflict over gender politics and encourage a kinder, gentler temper.

Then on 29 June she tweeted an accusation: why was labour leader Kier Starmer being ‘so timid in defence of trans rights? Transwomen are women; transmen are men…’ Whoa, how did she know that Starmer was being timid? Maybe he didn’t want to be snared on admittedly ‘difficult’ terrain.

Like her, he urges people to be nicer. Unlike the Green Party, the Labour leader suggests that law reform to enhance trans rights ‘takes us into difficult questions,’ that should be considered ‘in a mature, calm way.’ By contrast the Green Party leaders say there is no difficulty, no debate.

Scott Cato’s assertion attracted over 100 responses in no time, unusually polite, and mostly challenging her recital of  extreme trans dogma that ‘transwomen are women; transmen are men’ and ‘no debate.’

Her tweet synchronised with an emission on the same day from the green direct action movement, Extinction Rebellion that typified what passes for political manifestos these days, it put up a pledge:

‘We do not believe that the existence of trans people…is a topic that is up for debate…transwomen are women, transmen are men…this is not up for debate.’ A torrent of protests followed and unhappy moderators found themselves having to defend a pledge the provenance of which was seemingly a mystery even to them.

Of course, trans people exist. And trans rights aren’t at risk from debate – people do not die from debate. But women’s rights and resources are at grave risk not only from the effects of ‘austerity’, funding regimes, but also from and extreme trans activism seeking to silence women and assail feminist organisations.

There is a fundamental problem – already evident in politics, in the institutions, from banks to publishers, in the voluntary sector, in sport, and in schools and universities – if a man is a woman because he says he is, then the category woman is emptied of meaning. How can we address the fact that women everywhere in the world are put upon, discriminated against, oppressed, under-paid, unpaid, raped and disrespected because they are women?

And how can we make the connections – vital for Green politics – between thoroughly gendered pillage, exploitation, pollution and patriarchy that is manifest from the Congo to the Amazon?

No sooner was the Extinction Rebellion pledge up than unhappy posts asked who decided this, what does it mean, what about women?  ‘If it helps I’m not enjoying it very much either,’ lamented a besieged moderator.

Scott Cato addressed the flood following her tweet by saying that yes, she too, wanted to end the toxicity that is stifling the Green Party. But telling members to play nicely is no match for bullying.  The authoritarian and narcissistic mantra ‘there is no debate’ is biblical not political, it is, in fact, the antithesis of politics.

The academic Sarah Ahmed goes so far as to defend ‘no debate’ and no-platforming of feminists in this way, ‘we do not agree that freedom of speech is freedom to speak unaccountably.’ But no-platforming, blocking and not-debating precisely prevents speaking accountably, it proscribes speaking, hearing and active participation in the  very production of politics.

 

IS THERE OR ISN”T THERE…?

Scott Cato and Extinction Rebellion were doing what they were simultaneously denying: they were participating in a debate it whilst prohibiting it.

Scott Cato clearly wants to heal a party suffering from septic shock, but her benign injunction is too late: playing nicely assumes that the players want to play, that they share an interest in the game, that they recognise politics as a context for necessary, peaceful, creative conflict – all of which is extinguished by ‘there is no debate’.

To understand this impasse, we need to go beyond the etiquette and structures of the Green Party to its sexual politics: it is liberal rather than radical and feminist, all about choice – choosing to sell sex, choosing to change sex. No doubt liberal goodwill to all men also motivated the party’s endorsement, without research, consultation or debate, of extreme trans dogma. Of course, people wanted to be nice and to support trans rights.

But liberalism became host to tyranny and misogyny. When damned feminists and gays, and people whose job it is to think, debated sex (bodies) and gender (cultures), and power; about prostitution, sex trafficking child sexual abuse, they met a wall of denial and harassment; when they queried cultishness and the injunction ‘there is no debate’, they were maligned as terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), disciplined and even sued.

Outside the pale of the Green Party, feminists and their supporters have been harangued –  J.K. Rowling’s careful and candid exploration of the issues is the latest in  a long and honourable line  – picketed, gigs cancelled, venues barred, some organisations’ funds have been threatened, funds lost; jobs have been threatened, jobs lost.

Amidst all this, the Green Party leadership either stayed shtum, or, like co-leader Sian Berry, were intransigent defenders of the dogma.

CHILD TORTURE  – THE CHALLENOR CASE

It was when a case of child rape and torture by Green Party member David Challenor became public in 2018 that the implications of this sulphurous state of affairs hit the party. He was the father of trans woman Aimee Challenor, a Green equalities spokesperson – notorious for abusive social media denunciations of ‘terfs’, and for improvising a social-media mass ‘terf’ blocking mechanism,  her boast was that 50,000 people had been blocked. Hardly an exemplar of online democracy.

Teenage Challenor had returned to Coventry (the Challenor siblings had been in care) in 2014, joined the Green Party, and embarked on ‘gender transition’. Aimee Challenor became a Green Party candidate and equalities spokesperson with ambitions to become party leader.

However, unknown to the party at the time, her rise and rise was shadowed by her father’s offence: David Challenor was arrested in 2015 for the kidnap, rape, and electrocution of a ten-year-old girl, whilst dressing up himself as a girl, at the Challenors’ home, which was also Coventry Green Party’s registered address. Apparently, he was also a fetishist who enjoyed dressing as a little girl in nappies and frocks.

Aimee had been interviewed by the police in 2015, and therefore knew about the case, but nevertheless appointed him to be her election agent in Coventry in May 2016.

After a radical High Court ruling in October 2016, which referred to Mermaids, a ‘charity’ that facilitates sex change in children, David and Aimee Challenor mobilised an open letter supporting Mermaids. Green party leaders Sian Berry and Amelia Womack were among the signatories.

In 2017, Aimee Challenor returned to the family home. In 2018 David Challenor stood trial, was convicted and jailed for 22 years. The party’s response was to condemn him, of course, and to extend support to….no, not the tortured child, but to Aimee Challenor, who had failed to warn the party of this looming disgrace, and who claimed to have not known the ‘full details’ of his offences.

This was a clear breach of party rules: candidates and officers are required to inform the party of anything that might bring the party into disrepute; it also ignored the child safeguarding implications.

During this time Aimee Challenor’s partner, based in Aberdeen, was Nathaniel Knight.They later moved to the US, married and Challenor took Knight’s name.

Subsequently, the party and Challenor were criticised by the Verita independent report, commissioned by the party and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse report on abuse linked to Westminster, published in February 2020. Both were stern critics of the party’s low level of safeguarding awareness.

It was the Challenor case and Aimee Challenor’s performance as equalities spokesperson and the anti-feminist discourse promoted in the Green Party from 2014-15, including the public humiliation of a philosopher who was only doing his job: thinking, and finally the lack of awareness of child abuse, that provoked many party members to challenge the trans agenda – myself included.  I wrote a critique, urging the party to ask itself whether it had been induced into a  – witch-hunting and cultishness, to which the Challenors had vigorously contributed – that not only shielded them from scrutiny but created a kind of political coma about the misogyny and McCarthyism in the party.

This was only one flank of a larger reification of offended sensibilities and censorship spreading across organisations in the US and the UK. One of the protagonists,  Richard Firth – ironically Leeds Green Party’s equality, diversity and inclusion officer – participated in a little scam designed to get the feminist campaign Women’s Place UK banned from Leeds Civic Hall: WPUK had organised a celebration the 2018 centenary of (some) women getting the vote. The group was accused of transphobia – for insisting on women’s right to safe spaces – and the reservation was revoked at the last minute.

CROWDED COMPLAINTS

It was Richard Firth who lodged a formal complaint against me in 2018. A similar complaint was lodged against former deputy leader Shahrar Ali for tweeting a reference to my Byline piece. Firth’s complaint was focused on a couple of blogs and tweets which, he alleged, attacked trans people and party policy. Readers can see for themselves.

The complaint loitered in the crowded complaints system for almost a year. In September 2019 I was informed that the committee took no position on my views, only on the way they were expressed, ‘Given the respondent’s acclaimed mastery of language, she should have been more careful about causing distress, not just offence.’ I was urged to treat other Green Party members ‘with more courtesy in the future.’

There was no reference to whom – if anyone – I had caused distress. For the record, disagreement does not equate to distress. The complaint rested on the idea that I should have pursued concerns through the party’s clogged channels and, presumably waited and waited for a non-result.

So, I would not be suspended, but I would take a proverbial slap for not being nice to the clique that, in my opinion, brought the party into disrepute.  And I would be prohibited from standing for public office for a year. Irony upon irony, Richard Firth himself was suspended for a year and banned from holding off ice for two years in 2020.

Complaints saturated the party’s disciplinary process. One of the most egregious was against Sheffield activist Andy Healey, a promoter of the feminist site, Gender Critical Greens.

Clearly, there is a debate and there isn’t: it is mangled in the party’s disciplinary – rather than democratic – processes. Attempts to address the decline of democracy in the party, the toxic culture, and the implications of the trans modus operandi *at the party’s spring 2019 party conference – despite a clear majority in support of debate – were thwarted: no time was allocated for a conversation that most of the people at the conference wanted to have.

Therein lies madness and tyranny. So, we come back to the Extinction Rebellion and Molly Scott-Cato.

Without consulting supporters – difficult to do in intensely-devolved movements – a coterie in Extinction Rebellion introduced a polarising trans commandment for which it has no mandate. Scott-Cato’s sincerely-held wish for everyone to be nice and bring an end to nastiness is an impossible dream if she holds to the prohibition: there is no debate.

Be Nice is no answer. The party is polarised and it must take a risk: acknowledge the divisions, admit that though they may never be resolved they can be addressed; create the opportunity for collective contemplation of the evidence, the science and the politics, the theory and practice of sex and gender. That is, to do politics properly.

Post script  After this piece was posted, the very experienced Green activist, Dee Searle, wrote a searing critique of Green inner-party democracy on London Left Green Blog: http://londongreenleft.blogspot.com/2020/07/can-green-party-be-saved-from-its.html

  • Theo Simon proposed a late motion to the 2019 party conference to address a perceived crisis:

“Review and renew the democratic culture of the Green Party”. It was initially ruled out, but an overwhelming conference vote decided it should be ruled back in for debate. It was not given time, however. It proposed a safe, decisive and contained way to re-evaluate recent events – particularly in response to ‘gender critical positions’, and re-establish democratic principles: ”Conference acknowledges concerns that a culture has arisen in the party which may have lowered standards of civil debate, marginalised members complaints, and silenced members voices around particular policies. In particular we note allegations of the following: Pressures brought to bear from outside the party to have members suspended; Prejudicial suspensions, without prior warning, including of a parliamentary candidate; Court action being pursued against a member by party officers; Complaints of misogynistic bullying and of complaints going unanswered; Language-policing of members in discussion forums accompanied by legal threats; Blocking of members electronic communications and other access to party bodies; Disciplining of local parties over their wording of resolutions. We affirm that a culture of respectful, inclusive and transparent enquiry and debate is essential if we want to develop effective Green policy, retain membership, and build a democratic party worthy of office. We also affirm that all party officers and internal procedures must be seen to serve and protect these ends. We recognise that, in parallel to the independent Verita enquiry, work must now be done to re-establish trust in our democratic culture, policy-making and governance, both within the party and beyond. Conference therefore instructs GPRC, as guardians of party well-being, as follows: 1) To commission an expeditious internal enquiry into how this divisive culture has arisen and been perpetuated and what measures should now be taken to restore political health and amicable debate. 2) To invite submissions to this enquiry, relating to the period September 2016 to September 2018, from members and former members, with guarantees of confidentiality if required. This Internal Enquiry Into The Party’s Democratic Culture to be established within no more than one month of this motion, and to be concluded no later than the week before Spring Conference 2019, with findings and recommendations to be made available to members at that time. 3) To restore confidence in the ‘no fault’ suspension mechanism by confirming the procedure that GPRC is using to reach decisions on requests for immediate suspension. 4) To ensure that plans are drawn up by 14th December, and communicated to all members, for a Disciplinary Review process whereby members or former members can submit requests that suspensions, expulsions, complaint adjudications or other disciplinary sanctions from this period be reconsidered, such that any remedial action which is necessary may be taken.”

 

Personal note: It is with the greatest regret that I am leaving the Green Party.

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

New Feminism is Fabulous

I was recently invited to join the discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with the wonderful Laura Bates, who launched Everyday Sexism.

Great. But it was set up as the New Feminism achieving more than the boring old feminism…

Madness: the new feminism is fabulous — women improvising political strategies out of their own experience and in the context of new cultures of sexism released by the web. As it should be: each generation confronting its own circumstances and creating its own movements.

The established media, however, suffers from historical amnesia as well as institutional indifference — it thinks of feminism as if it were Year Zero: nothing happened until yesterday. It doesn’t know what’s being going on because it doesn’t pay attention.

Every day the Today programme has a sports bulletin. Actually, it’s a bulletin about boys’ games.

But did you hear the programme interview the nursery nurses and classroom assistants who took on a cartel of 20 councils in Scotland over equal pay — fought them all the way to the Supreme Court and won last month?

Did we hear interviews with cleaners and cooks who challenged Europe’s biggest local authority, Birmingham, over a grotesquely discriminatory bonus structure — and won?

Did we hear the thousands of women trekking through the tribunals to make public authorities obey the equality law? Did we hear government being challenged about their readiness to bail out the banks, but their refusal right now to bail out local authorities facing historical comeuppance and monumental bills for their determined refusal to apply the law on equal pay – in effect, for stealing from women?

Do we hear about feminism’s impact in the last Labour government in radicalising the law on crimes of sexual violence, or its irreducible importance in making new labour introduce Sure Start — the best thing it ever did?

Each generation makes its own feminism — but it is as hard as it is because our national media ignores the feminist activism that already exists.

IRON LADY

From my book: THE IRON LADIES
Virago 1987

The Iron Ladies by Beatrix Campbell, 1987Margaret 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.

Margaret Thatcher, Housewife in Kitchen

Credit: AP

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.

Margaret Thatcher is Dead

Barack Obama said that Margaret Thatcher was an iconic role model for our daughters.

Wrong.

Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States was a moment of vindication for black Americans.

His mantra during his election campaign, Yes We Can, could have been their maxim, too. Yes, black America, Yes WE Can!

But the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister offered no such promise. What she believed was Yes I Can.

Margaret Thatcher in Tank

She didn’t share power with women. She didn’t expand women’s democratic room for manoeuvre. On the contrary, she diminished democracy. She didn’t empower women.

Equality was a word purged from her vocabulary. And feminism, she believed, was ‘poison’. Without it, of course, she would never have become a Parliamentarian, a Prime Minister, or even a voter.

Margaret Thatcher in Tees Valley Crowd

Unemployment in the Tees Valley stood at almost 20 per cent. Jobless Eric Fletcher found his way through the crowd to the Prime Minister, with his file containing all his job applications: more than 1000.

For sure, Thatcher proved that she could perform power like no man: she could be more than any man — but she wrapped a feminine endorsement around a thoroughly patriarchal project.

Her mission was to re-structure the state and society, and she engineered this with surgical elan; Thatcherism tilted the axis of British politics, she made the lore of the market appear to be the language of life itself.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

It was — as the great Jamaican scholar-activist Stuart Hall, the pioneering theorist of Thatcherism — described it a project of modernisation: REGRESSIVE MODERNISATION.

It spoke freewheeling free marketeering into one ear, he said, and ‘the voice of respectable, bourgeois, patriarchal man’ in our other ear.

Hear this fast, bracing debate between the lovely Tory MP Margot James and myself.

Thatcher, Bea Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4

Listen to Beatrix Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme…

JODIE FOSTER FOREVER — THE ACCUSED

Jodie Foster answers the eternal question, “Am I gay?”, when she comes out in 2013, almost a quarter of a century after her magnificent movie The Accused.

Here’s my homage to Jodie Foster:

THE ACCUSED ON RELEASE, written in Marxism Today in 1989

Kelly McGillis and Jodie Foster in The Accused

The Accused is the first popular movie of the ’80s to self-consciously take the side of women and invite men to take responsibility for rape.

Its commitment to that project is a kind of redemption for the producers, Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, whose big hit, Fatal Att-raction, was a real shocker, a serious regression, emblematic not so much of 1980s’ postfeminism as anti-feminism.

The Accused, in contrast, takes its form from mainstream melodrama and its consciousness from modern feminism.

Unlike many movies which occupy the landscape of sexuality, The Accused does not face the woman viewer with the dilemma of her own self-destruction as a woman-with-desire, while she watches the drama of desire played out as woman’s destruction.

What the film offers women is the affirmation of their pain as victims, but more than that, it offers pleasure.

There’s pleasure in the metamorphosis of the classic portrayal of women as victims (they’re both  doomed by men and yet dependent on the protection of men) into women as survivors, and more than that, as protagonists. For once women aren’t defeated. And they defend themselves.

Women’s pleasure as spectators is multiplied in solidarity with the performers. Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, who play the rape victim and the assistant district attorney who prosecutes her case, have expressed not only pride in their performances, but in the politics of the whole project.

Foster, the child star who took herself off to Yale University, said that she wanted to play Sarah Tobias, the raunchy, working-class waitress, who is gang-raped, because she was ‘close to my heart’.

She wanted to enable Sarah ‘to find her own voice, to prove to society that she could rise above their low expectations of her’. McGillis wanted to play either Sarah or Kathryn Murphy, the cool, chic, district attorney, because she wanted to ‘help give other rape victims a voice’.

There is another level of identification with Foster and McGillis. They’re both stars and yet for once that doesn’t exempt them from the world of women — the debates in the United States have invoked both women’s real-life experience of sexual harassment and rape.

When it comes to the reality of sexual terrorism, they’re women just like any others. They’ve suffered, and they’re using the power of stardom not to transcend our reality but to intervene in it.

It is a measure of the permanence and yet the precariousness of patriarchy and of women’s insistent presence that popular Western culture gives us not only the trashy ‘Fatal Attraction’ but also serious and popular interventions in sexual politics like Farrah Fawcett’s chilling melodrama, ‘The Burning Bed’, about a battered woman who kills her husband; Nine To Five, the secretaries’ revenge movie; and now The Accused.

It is within civil society and the courts, (it’s no surprise that The Accused becomes a court-room drama), that we see the most dramatic expression nowadays of how the power struggle between men and women is regulated and resolved. It is there that we see sexual politics in the raw rather than within the political domain which remains aloof from the seismic shifts in contemporary sexual culture. It’s another ex-ample of the isolation of the Political domain from politics as she is lived.

Much of the debate about The Accused in the US has focused on Sarah and the rape scene. It is detailed and relentless.

The question is: does it titillate?

It’s an interesting question that, isn’t it? The assumption is that to show the abuse of a woman always risks the arousal of men.

The film also pushes the audience to the limits of conventional wisdom by making Sarah a sexual outlaw – she drinks, she likes to smoke dope and she flirts with her assailant.

But The Accused is meticulous here. Sarah is raped in a bar by a preppie, good-looking student while a posse of men cheer and join in.

The camera is positioned so that it neither identifies with the victim nor her assailants. While she lies prone on a pin ball machine, buried under the bodies of the rapists, our eye is guided to the clamouring, cheering men who not only let it happen but make it happen. They’re never allowed to be neutral.

There is also a modesty in the camera’s gaze. The movie makes no effort to dramatise Sarah’s pain and shame. To let us see into her would seem like another invasion.

For women spectators, perhaps, we bring to her what we already know.

And men? Well, they have to use their imagination. They are confronted by what they, too, know about their own sex, but in this scene they also have to see men as women see them and thus, as men must, too.

Interestingly, Sarah can’t see them. She is doomed to feel them and their effects. We, the spectators, also see the crowd through the eyes of two critical characters, the woman working in the same bar, who averts her gaze and gets on with her job. She wants no trouble, she’s got two children to take care of.

And then there’s the preppie student’s admiring buddy, who can’t take his eyes off what’s going on, and who hates what he sees. It is he who follows Sarah as she flees and it is he who calls the police to report the rape.

This brings us to another feature of the film’s politics: there are no spontaneous solidarities. It’s not a case of men are beasts and baddies and women are only goodies.

The goodies have to get better before they get to be goodies, and it is through the process of consciousness-raising that the film constructs the drama. It is the drama of self-discovery and the difficulty of solidarity which gives the narrative its frisson. Because we know from the beginning who has done what.

Here the film offers a fresh variant on what the feminist film critic Judith Williamson has designated the phenomenon of the ‘single working woman’ in the movies of the 1980s. These two are not professional women severed from communal or sexual context, but working women who are also sexual.

It is class which divides the women: the waitress from her attorney. McGillis as district attorney, is aloof and disinterested. She treats the victim, just as her assailants did, as an object, never consulting her, never confiding in her, never respecting her. The rapist student’s wealthy parents employ classy lawyers, and ultimately they do a deal. The law is not about the truth, after all, it is about winners and losers.

Sarah finds her redemption in her revolt. She storms into the attorney’s coolly exquisite apartment — a domestic laboratory — one night while she’s entertaining, and plays hell, as only a woman from her class can.

It is then that the professional woman finds sexual solidarity with the working class woman. Only then does the attorney take responsibility by deciding to prosecute the bystanders. To do that she also has to face out the opposition of her male colleagues in the district attorney’s department.

The film confronts all bystanders with their culpability by adopting this ingenious strategy of taking a legal action against some of the bar-room bystanders as accessories.

By their inertia they are not innocent or exempt, they are involved. And in their indolence. Murphy’s colleagues also forfeit the claim to innocence. They, too, are to blame.

The film dares not only to explore the difficulty of sisterhood, it also illuminates the swamp of male solidarity. The reluctant and scared male witness is tormented by his loyalty to the lads as well as to their victim. And the film lets us see why.

Two words haunt the trial of the bystanders. Sarah is asked what she said when she was being raped. “Did she cry for help?”, her interrogator asks. “No”, says Sarah, but what she did say, over and over again was, “NO”.

Was ‘No’ not enough?

These are key words, they challenge women’s historic subordination in film — the heroine’s salvation is traditionally supposed to lie in her proper dependence on a solitary hero, who in avenging her also avenges his own insulted masculinity. Here, Sarah’s integrity is restored by her own demand that her word was enough.

The Accused is suggestive of the political problems which challenge us in the late 1980s and which are about nothing if not the dissolution of old solidarities and the discovery of new ones.

Neither gender nor class alliances are immaculately conceived, made in heaven. Shared class or gender does not bring with it equivalent knowledge or identical interests, and this film’s maturity lies in its refusal of sentimental solidarities.

Sure, it’s got gross, queasy music, and yes, it carries some soppy characteristics of melodrama, but it is also disciplined in its refusal of easy unities.

That discipline is what gives The Accused its happy ending. The slut gets her proper status as a person; not as a victim but as a survivor. The snob discovers sister-hood. The scared boy becomes a man by joining women. And patriarchy, for once, gets the blame.

MARXISM TODAY, March 1989