Sunday, 2 August 2009

Harman's foot-in-mouth feminism

Harriet Harman is right to suggest that having the top jobs in the Labour party filled exclusively by men is a terrible and outdated idea, as it would be for any political party. But her reasoning is flawed and ridiculous.

She explains her objection to "a men only team of leadership" by suggesting that "men cannot be left to run things on their own". Which is, of course, entirely untrue, not to mention lazily misandrist. Men can be left to run things on their own - indeed, they managed to run central government all by themselves for a number of centuries without setting the Commons on fire or leaving the Civil Service strewn with empty kegs, takeaway pizza-boxes and porn. What Harman totally fails to do is to make a case for why we should not be satisfied with having men in sole charge of government, even if they're competent.

We want an equal government because only an equal government can truly comprehend the interests of the people it serves. Of course, the past thirty years is littered with examples of brave male politicians who have worked tirelessly to advance women's rights - John McDonnell and Dr Evan Harris - and female politicians like Thatcher, Dorries and Widdecombe who have done anything but. But even male MPs working for women's rights have always done so in a context of solidarity with female ministers and women of power, advancing the female agenda as only they know how - consider, for example, Dr Harris' partnership with Dr Wendy Savage in countering last year's HFE bill to clamp down on abortion rights.

Her idiotic comments will, of course, be taken gleefully out of context by rightist pundits over the next few days, and there have already been charges that Harman is anti-meritocratic, with Prescott himself weighing in to say ”why take away from the party the right to choose its leaders on the basis of ability? You can’t dictate equality.”

Well, of course you can’t, John. Since Harriet seems pathologically unable to properly explain herself right now, let me: if we were a truly meritocratic society, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would invariably go to a woman – if not both. To claim otherwise is to admit to a belief that women are somehow innately inferior.

Later in the same interview Harman goes on to suggest, more sensibly, that "in a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men running the show themselves." As Yvonne Roberts put it today:

"The idea that the individuals running an organisation ought to reflect the market that the organisation is trying to serve is increasingly common practice (ie it generates profits) in the commercial world – so why is it deemed such a revolutionary concept in politics?"

Why indeed? There are plenty of reasons to wish for a balanced government; productivity and efficiency is certainly one, which is the point that I suspect Harman was blunderingly trying to make in the first place. Genuine democracy - a government of the people, for the people, 51% of whom are women - is another. But we need to start being brave enough to make those arguments upfront, without apologising. If we don't, we'll risk doing what Harman has just done, and making a very reasonable suggestion sound callously anti-meritocratic and misandrist.

39 comments:

  1. Good post. I think it's probably over-egging it a bit to say that what Harman's saying sounds 'callously anti-meritocratic and misandrist' but she has provided a very silly soundbite.

    I don't feel discriminated against or hated at reading that Harman reckons 'men cannot be left to run things on their own' but I do get the impression that someone's making a weak 'battle of the sexes' joke rather than a serious political point about the roles of women in government (and in parliament in general).

    That's a big shame because this an area where New Labour made some big progress - with results that both improved parliament and improved Labour's share of the vote - and has now at best stopped or at worst is going backwards.

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  2. Is Harriet consciously trying to provide copy for the Richard Littlejohns of this world? Sometimes I wonder.

    You hit the nail squarely on the head there.

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  3. If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would invariably go to a woman – if not both. To claim otherwise is to admit to a belief that women are somehow innately inferior.

    I hate to get all pedantic on you, but this statement is mathematically false. In fact, the expected situation, given that it is equally probable that a man or woman be the best suited for a position, would be that 50% of the time there would be one of each in the top 2 jobs; 25% of the time it would be two women and 25% of the time it would be two men.

    Harman is, I suspect, very much of the "cultural feminist" school of thought, so her statement may actually not be so much lazy as a genuine statement of what she feels about men being in charge of things.

    Letting my mind run wild, I think that might have a basis in subjective experience: women in a country run by men will probably experience the country as being run in a much less effective way than is possible (and might therefore subjectively conclude that men are just worse at running things full-stop). Flip that around to the question of whom we would want running the show and we see that it is, indeed, much less effective to have only men running things - not because they are naturally less gifted, but because of the limitations of privilege and of perspective.

    My brain is buzzing with numerous mechanical analogies now, but I think I'll stop here.

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  4. I think you're being a bit hard on poor old Hazza here. She is of course quite right that men can't be left to run things on their own. For all the reasons you yourself go on to state.

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  5. SnowdropExplodes: You made the comment I was going to make, but worded it much better than I would have. Thanks.

    Dandelion: Not quite, we *can* be left to run things on our own, but iff the best people at the time to run things are men.

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  6. I`m afraid that the government will never be a fair representation of the British public on the whole. Why is it any more difficult to believe that a man could represent a woman effectively than it is to believe a university educated lawyer can represent the interests of a plumber? Or that someone incredibly interested in politics and power will be able to represent the interests of an ordinary person?

    In fact the only system in which the government can directly express the interest of the people is one of direct democracy.
    Unfortunately the British people are terrible so that would never work.

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  7. Is the problem not that Harman misses the point of what is keeping high calibre women out of parliament. The machismo, bearpit atmosphere of the house, combined with unsociable hours are often blamed but are only symptomatic of the wider problem of the fact that the desire to grab and exercise power is a testosterone fuelled male trait. This is further emphasised by the combatitive nature of electerol politics. i would suggets that all the most admirable female figures in public life have found niches outside party politics (Shami Chakribati being the most obvious example.)

    It is a disgrace that the talents of women are not properly utilised by government, however the calibre of women at the top of both parties is pretty shocking really. The very fact that the most powerful British female poitician is capable, in merely one sentence, of setting back the feminist cause she claims to promote, alienating half of the population by telling them they can't be trusted and generally sounding like the shrill harridan of mysogynist fantasy is hardly a ringing endorsement.

    Maybe Harriet should have the sense to look at the structural problems that under pin the appalling male dominance of the senior positions in all the major parties, rather than merely trying to make sure that the labour constitution is altered in a way that makes it easier for her to remain close to the centre of power?

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  8. Checkered Demon3 August 2009 at 10:42

    There are men who would gladly pay hard cash to be spanked, whipped or caned by the Harperson and/or Jackie Jackboots and/or Lil' Hazel Blears.

    Maybe one or all of them might consider such a career change after the election.

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  9. If institutions have to evenly reflect the characteristics of the general population, then there would have to be widespread changes in politics, academia and the media.

    For instance, most of the decision makers in these fields are liberal and middle-class. This doesn't reflect society at large. According to the principle outlined above, there ought to be more working-class and conservative people in positions of influence in such areas.

    If Christians are, say, 50% of the "market" should they be 50% of all MPs, all film makers and all lecturers?

    What about the rural and urban divide? Should political candidates be vetted to get an even spread of geographical origins, with a representative number from rural backgrounds, small town and city? What about important personality traits? Are sensitive, artistic, introverted people really represented adequately within parliament?

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  10. Anonymous001: But that iff is by definition never going to be true, is it?

    Even assuming opportunities are equal and merit-based for both genders so that the best can get into position, a government tasked with representing the whole population is never going to be the best at doing that while only half the population (and the empathy-impaired half at that) is represented in the relevant posts.

    I for one don't want the laws in my country to be based (at best) on men's ideas and prejudices about women's experience, and men's excuses and justifications for their own behaviour.

    The only way men can be left to run things is if people don't care about having a just society.

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  11. "The idea that the individuals running an organisation ought to reflect the market that the organisation is trying to serve is increasingly common practice ... – so why is it deemed such a revolutionary concept in politics?"

    Well, that's the whole point, isn't it? The idea that the government should actually represent the general population (rather than a bunch of rich white guys who all went to Eton) is still a radical notion.

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  12. "and female politicians like Thatcher, Dorries and Widdecombe who have done anything but"

    may as well have read

    "and anyone who is a Tory"

    I was half expecting it to turn into another student politics style rant where the argument boiled down saying Thatcher ate babies and drowned kittens or something of that ilk.

    On a more serious note though, why is it that the left is unable to distinguish between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity?

    Why is it also so difficult for the left to see that the government should represent the people...that voted for it! NOT a socially engineered strata of politicians agreeable to the so-called liberal elite?

    If it happens to be the case that more people want to vote for rich guys who went to Eton then, and this is important now, **then they have a DEMOCRATIC mandate to rule**. End of.

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  13. Is Ms Harman going to admit that she stole this idea from the Green Party?

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  17. Giuseppe Balsamo3 August 2009 at 19:08

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  18. Dandelion: Most of the time the iff will be false, but sometimes it will be true, and at other times the best people for the job will be female.

    As a male, I do not exclude the possibility that a female could be able to represent me better than any other male. Likewise a possibility exists that a male could be able to represent you better than any other female. Given equal opportunities both cases will eventually happen.

    Personally I would be a terrible choice to represent females, but it has nothing to do with me having dangly bits, and the implication that they render me empathy-impaired is both misandrist and factually incorrect.

    I for one don't want the laws in my country to be based (at best) on stupid men's stupid ideas and prejudices about women's experience, and stupid men's excuses and justifications for their own behaviour.


    Mark: Correct, representative democracy can only ever be an approximation of a fair representation of the whole population, but it is here to stay for now. Direct democracy may work in UK at some point in the future, but I will be dead long before such a time. Aiming for things like proportional representation or an elected head of state are far more "realistic" goals for now.

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  19. I've just seen a clip of Harman on the news, recycling someone else's joke (so she claims) that if the bank had been called 'Lehman Sisters' it would never have gone bust (yeah, right). This isn't 'cultural feminism' (as an earlier commenter suggested), it's a kind of 'vulgar feminism' that claims that men and women are different - but only when it makes women look good. Harman might be right to argue for more women running international banks, but it doesn't square with any basic understanding of feminism that they would have a greater insight or wisdom in doing so simply because they are women, nor can it imply that such women would be any less inclined towards casino banking or the awarding of massive bonuses simply by virtue of not being men. Harman's got form for these statements, which suggests either a dodgy grasp of feminism or a deliberate political strategy (whether for before or after the general election is less clear).

    [redpesto]

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  20. Anonymous, I think it is the latter. Harman - for all my disagreements with her - is better than the 'vulgar feminism' that you rightly say she is currently peddling.

    In a sense I think the context is important. Feminism has for years been under a bitter and sustained attack from the establishment. A politician cannot, for example, simply refer to patriarchy, and expect people to interpretted the term as a reasonable means of describing social reality. Far from it, they will be ridiculed. A politician cannot simply start from the necessary and reasonable assumption that the battle for equality still needs to be fought. Hence, in her comments on the labour leadership she does not make a truly political case for female representation, but asserts the functional utility of having women up there - with an implied nod towards their special qualities.

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  21. There are many ways in which being male or female affects how a person sees the world. Some of it is down to biology and some to nurture or society.

    To take a tiny example, the school I attended had been an all-girls's grammar school, and it showed. There were some 6th form boys, doing A-levels, the rest were girls. It's still like that, actually. It wasn't a question of not being allowed to do woodwork or metalwork instead of needlework, there was no woodwork or metalwork class there.

    I think this may in a small way have influenced my views on the importance of outreach woodwork programmes in community centres. And my views on the small bookcase I made at the age of 36. Actually, I think I was 37 before I borrowed a drill and finished it (and it still has floating shelves).

    It's a small example, but there are lots of ways in which being brought up as "male" or "female" does affect your experiences and outlook.

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  22. Is it true that the Harperson is the actual author of that very finest of all books-for wimmin 'Reading your Cat's Horoscope' or is that a rumour spread by Jacy Jackboots?

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  23. In all all fairness, we must give the Harperson her due: she is struggling heroically against phallocentric hegemony and unceasingly battling patriarchal oppression!

    Right On Sistaz !

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  24. Is there any chance we as a society could stop wanking around arguing about who should be a politician or how much they should be paid or and actually think about what we want them to do, in terms of policies? I mean I know since the Iron Curtain came down we're All Thatcherites Now and politics is devoid of ideas but that's only because we've let it happen that way.

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  25. Of course it's impossible for you to mention a high-status female politician without people chiming in with inappropriately sexualising comments. Naturally. Stupid of me to think otherwise.

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  26. You should have seen some of the ones I deleted. *sigh*

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  27. Superb.

    Isn't a pity that the most powerful feminist in the country is so morbidly ineloquent?

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  28. "If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would invariably go to a woman – if not both. To claim otherwise is to admit to a belief that women are somehow innately inferior."

    @Penny just because one in two people are female does not mean you will get one in two women in top jobs. Even in the 'dream' society.

    You fail to ask whether unlike you other women are so interested in politics or becoming leaders.

    It's perfectly possible, without suggesting women are inferior, that maybe the reason we have less women MPs or women in high powered jobs is because they are generally not as interested in these things as you are.

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  29. Someone writing in the 'Telegraph' suggested that the Harperson is in fact a long-term Tory mole, a 'sleeper' in espionage parlance, whose hour has come at last and whose task is to make Labour as unelectable as it was under that ninny Footie and that windbag Kinnock.

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  30. @ RobW. Politics is not an ordinary type of "high powered job" like being a captain of industry, or captain of a cruise liner, for that matter. It's about things that affect women and so we darn well should be paying attention!

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  31. @ RobW:

    It's perfectly possible, without suggesting women are inferior, that maybe the reason we have less women MPs or women in high powered jobs is because they are generally not as interested in these things as you are.

    Even if that argument were true, then it simply raises the question of why women would be less interested in holding positions of power such as political office. It's either going to be something innate (and how would that work exactly?) or else it's going to be something cultural - in which case it can be changed and then in a true meritocracy we would expect 75% of the time that there would be at least 1 woman in the top 2 jobs (see the maths I quoted earlier).

    If you say that it's innate, then presumably you would argue that women are naturally programmed to be more subservient rather than seeking positions of responsibility and power. This does not seem to match observed facts. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there are cultural reasons why women do not pursue powerful positions - or are denied the opportunity to do so.

    So the suggestion that "women are not as interested" is simply proof that we don't live in a society where the best person for the job will get it.

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  32. @Vanilla Rose You've nailed the problem on its head. You and Penny think women should be paying attention. But just because you think they should doesn't mean the are or ever will.

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  33. "If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would invariably go to a woman – if not both."

    Dare I point out the glaring illogicality? It should be "one or both of two top jobs would go to a woman 3/4 of the time". Or, to be really exact, 76.5% of the time.

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  34. Ask yourself this...

    Which if the following do you prefer:

    (1) Harriet Harman;
    (2) Caroline Flint;
    (3) Hazel Blears;
    (3) Ruth Kelly.

    LEAVE BRITNEY... AND HARRIET!... ALONE!

    *sniff*

    *sob*

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  35. @SnowdropExplodes First please could you provide me with examples of where someone has changed a cultural norm. Note I do not want examples of 'something' that has changed a cultural norm. I want a situation where someone has said lets change a cultural norm and then changed it. Remember specifying a cultural norm is pretty difficult.

    And if something were inate it doesn't mean women are more subservient. Power isn't simply deployed through high powered job or politics. Also different high powered jobs may appeal to different sexes. So what if you have a situation in a particular industry where women dominate and have all the high powered jobs. Do you demand that men get 50% of the high powered jobs?

    In addition it's not a question of saying all women are uninterested in these things and all men are. It would be a case that women are generally less interested and men are generally more interested. Note I didn't say this was a fact merely a possibility.

    Also you're never going to have a situation where the best person for the job gets it. Because the best person may not actually want the job or may turn it down. Then what do you do, do you force that person to take the job?

    And what are these cultural reasons for women not getting high powered jobs? Please inform. And I hope you're not going to mix up cultural reasons and market realities.

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  36. It seems to me a bit of a mistake to harp on about meritocracy as an ideal.

    Why is our intelligence any more relevant to what we deserve from our lives, than say our sex or gender?

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  37. Couldn't agree more Ben. It's a real shame that a section of the left went down this road of carefully differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate inequality.

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  38. I don't understand how a politician can't "represent" a section of society that he/she isn't a member of?
    A good politician (as you've pointed out) can do an excellent job no matter who they are. I think RobW makes excellent points - just because there aren't as many women in politics doesn't mean there is some big problem. It can just mean that more men are interested in being professional politicians!
    It may be worth pointing out that a politician is a public servant and should not have any "power" in any case..

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