“If feminism means that we should treat people equally then yes, absolutely, absolutely”
That was David Cameron’s response when Labour MP Rupa Huq asked if he was a feminist. It’s so absurd that it should be written in flashing lights outside number 10 Downing Street this Christmas, as an ironic, ‘festive’ message.
Cameron’s ‘feminism’ is, of course, disingenuous. We know this for several reasons. Firstly, when people feel the need to define feminism before agreeing with it, it betrays unease with the concept. Secondly, his definition included no mention of women, an epic (private) schoolboy error. Thirdly, his words reduced his male colleagues to even more of a sniggering rabble than usual But by far the biggest give away as to the hollowness of Cameron’s ‘feminism’ is that his party is responsible for an austerity programme that disproportionately affects women, stripping them of financial autonomy and dignity.
The language of austerity is about belt tightening and living within our means. The implication is that not only is austerity a necessity, it’sour duty. Cameron claims we are all in it together, a community of people pinching pennies for a greater good. But in reality poor, vulnerable and , minority ethnic women are having their belts forcibly tightened. Government and right wing media outlets frequently remind us that women on low incomes with the audacity to become mothers are both welfare dependent and produce children who are welfare dependent. This rhetoric fuelled, policy driven war on women is cementing their poverty.
For the sake of time, here are just a handful of reasons, cherry picked from countless other examples, of why David Cameron is definitely not a feminist.
A feminist would not impoverish women
Women make up the majority of those in the UK dependent on minimum wage, so they will be hardest hit by the government’s decision not to introduce The Living Wage, which is£8.25 outside of London, and £9.40 inside London, as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation. Cameron’s government has instead opted for George Osborne’s ‘national living wage’ of £7.20, across all regions, from April 2016. Aside from being so meagre, it won’t be enough to survive on. The ‘national living wage’ will only apply to those over 25 because anyone under the age of 25 can survive off of fairy dust and youth, as the Conservatives indicated earlier this year when they decided that under 25’s no longer needed access to housing benefit.
The fact that we are being refused a national living wage is a feminist issue. The proportion of working women who are low-paid is around twice that of working men and, according to the Fawcett Society, since 2008, 826,000 extra women have moved into types of work that are low paid and insecure. In that same period of time, while UK unemployment has fallen, female under-employment has nearly doubled.
On top of seeing their wages fall women have also been disproportionately affected by the lowered household cap on benefits, the freezing of child benefit and the 8.9 billion cut to tax credits, of which 7.9 billion will be lost to women. The consequences for women are devastating and you don’t have to Google hard to find real life stories of previously financially independent women queuing at food banks, struggling to feed their families.
A feminist would not line the pockets of rich men
David Cameron’s approach to paying off the deficit has been to cut public spending rather than raise taxes. In doing so he’s making a conscious decision to forfeit the financial security of women, locking many of them into poverty. While his government meats out what Frances Ryan calls an ‘economic and cultural assault on women’ wealth is being redistributed upwards through tax breaks and a culture of tax evasion. According to Richard Murphy, Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London, only 33% of companies in the UK pay tax. Outside of that 33% are companies such as AstraZeneca, which paid no corporation tax in 2013 and 2014, despite having made profits of £2.9bn. And the corruption runs deep; AstraZeneca’s Head of Tax, Ian Brimicombe, also works as an advisor to the treasury.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of accountability from those at the top of society, or the gender and class imbalance of those hardest hit by austerity. In the previous coalition government women were forced to pay off 79% of the deficit. And Cameron’s message is crystal clear, by pledging a 5 year lock on tax, cutting the top rate of income tax paid by the wealthiest, slashing corporation tax and cutting inheritance tax for estates of up to £1m, he is willing to further entrench inequality; syphoning wealth away from the most vulnerable to relieve the richest of social responsibility and sustain the cycle of privilege.
A feminist wouldn’t jeopardise the safety of women
British culture is still riddled with male violence towards women. 1 in 4 women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. 1 woman is raped every 9 minutes. 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. 65,000 girls are at risk of female genital mutilation, and last year 1,300 known cases of forced marriage occurred, with 15% of the girls being under 15. The violence that women have to navigate as part and parcel of their existence is just one feature of a complicated web of gender inequality. In addition, the disproportionate impact of austerity means women now lack the support necessary to escape abusive relationships. Severe reductions in benefits, low pay, the deep cuts to 95% of women’s charities, the £350 million cut from legal aid, and changes to housing benefits, have a particularly devastating impact on lone mothers, women with disabilities, BME women, and those who are fleeing domestic abuse and have no recourse to public funds. More women than ever are being forced to decide between staying in an abusive relationship or leaving and facing destitution.
The decimation of services that act as a lifeline to vulnerable women has been swift and brutal – 100 women and 84 children are denied refuge every day because of a lack of space, none of the 46 rape crisis centres have secured funding beyond March 2016, and 25% of all women’s organisations are facing closures One example is the closure of women’s charity Eaves, which provided support for female victims of violence. The charity’s income fell from £6m at the end of March 2012 to £1.4m just two years later. With high rents and an insurmountable deficit to contend with, the charity had to shut its doors for the final time on 30th October.
A feminist would not accept the gender pay gap
I am writing this on Equal Pay Day – the point in the year at which women in full-time employment effectively stop earning, compared to their male counterparts. Despite outperforming males at every stage of education, women earn 19.1% less than men. This means that for every £1 a man earns, a woman earns 81p. At the current rate of progress the gender pay gap isn’t set to close for another 50 years. Some suggest the gender pay gap is a fallacy as women choose to work in jobs that pay less, but that argument ignores several inconvenient truths, such as the lack of flexible but secure work opportunities needed to balance a career and caring commitments, the gender discrimination that occurs within workplaces at the recruitment process and during wage reviews and promotions (from which they have little hope for recourse since the introduction of fees for employment tribunal claims), or the estimated 54,000 women who are forced to leave their job each year as a result of poor treatment after they have their baby.
Many women from low income households and with children to support lack the agency and opportunities needed to do anything but low paid work. The socialisation and stereotyping that allocates women domestic and emotional care giver roles means they’re far more likely to carry out unpaid care work for children and sick and elderly relatives. In fact, 72% of carers are women.
In October this year David Cameron said he wanted a world in which his daughter earns the same as her male colleagues, but his words were hot air. Within days it was revealed that Tory MEPs had voted against an EU resolution, requiring that big companies disclose their gender pay gap. This is despite the Conservative party manifesto pledge to force companies with more than 250 employees to disclose their gender pay gap.
But the gender pay gap is about more than money. Despite making up 51% of the population, power is still concentrated in the hands of men. This leaves women underrepresented in the political structures and decision-making processes within British society. As it stands only 29% of MPs and 32% of the cabinet are women. The under-representation of women in leadership positions extends beyond government, with a Guardian name-check of the FTSE 100 showing that there are far more men called John leading the UK’s biggest companies than there are women named anything. Until women are given strategically significant political positions, government will be incapable of getting policies right for women and women will continue to battle against the lack of family-friendly working policies and support for childcare, the persistence of gender stereotyping and the unequal balance of domestic work.
A feminist would not institute policy that attacks minority women
At the Conservative Party Conference, Cameron talked about how he’d heard that a black girl had to change her name before she got any calls to interviews. He was discussing a form of institutional racism that impedes the opportunities of many ethnic minorities and his impassioned response could have signalled positive change.. But Cameron is leader of one of the most unrepresentative institutions in society, a party that is actively reproducing ethnic inequality through welfare cuts and so it seems unlikely that his words were anything but faux disgust and self-interested spin.
If Cameron were genuinely concerned about the disadvantage faced by black and minority ethnic (BME) people he would dig deeper and accept that he is part of a political culture that demonises and deprives BME people. One only need consider immigration policy and the dehumanising language that accompanies it, or the fact that our judiciary system, top universities, and independent and grammar schools are almost completely white, to understand that there are significant barriers to BME representation in political structures and decision-making processes.
BME women are at a particularly high risk of poverty. 38%of Black women and 64% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women live in poverty. 11% of Black women and 10% of Asian women are unemployed, compared to 5% of white women. The barriers that stop women in general from entering politics and taking on leadership roles are even greater for ethnic minority women. As a result only 41 of 650 MPs are BME and only 19 of those are BME women. Despite this, 100% of the charities supporting BME women are facing cuts and, according to a report by the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality think tank, government cuts are set to hit ethnic minorities, particularly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, twice as hard as white Britons. This will inadvertently increase ethnic inequality in the UK.
A feminist wouldn’t demonise mothers
According to the Child Poverty Action Group there were 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2013-14. That’s 28%of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30. Additionally, as a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made since 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies project that the number of children in relative poverty will have risen from 3.6m to 4.3 million by 2020. Unfortunately the Conservatives aren’t making the connection between low wages that don’t meet the rising cost of living, the dismantling of the welfare state and child poverty. Indeed, it seems government is unaware of the most basic connection at play – children living in poverty have parents that live in poverty, often lone mothers. Government response to child poverty is to call out cultural deprivation, blaming poor parenting. The government’s annual report on poverty and social exclusion, Opportunity for All, states that, ‘the quality of the parenting in the home’ is identified as the factor which makes most ‘difference to a child’s outcome’. But the use of gender neutral language there is deceptive. It is mothers who still take on the lion’s share of childcare and emotional and domestic work, so it is effectively women who are being blamed for sustaining a cycle of poverty, despite the fact that they now lack the support necessary to achieve social mobility.
Cameron needs to understand that feminism isn’t just the belief that gender equality is a moral imperative, it’s an active movement fighting for the liberation of women from a multitude of structural inequalities that disenfranchise them . By hitting women twice as hard as men with benefits cuts and by not raising taxes, to protect the ruling classes, he is complicit in the brutalisation of ethnic minority women, women on low incomes, working mothers, and disabled women. No feminist would conjure up such cruelty.
Written by Steph Kelly
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