Monday, 31 August 2009

Reproductive freedom and racial paranoia: or, why Melanie McDonagh can fuck right off.

Shock, horror, disaster: the population is exploding! Yes, the recently-over-reported demographic expansion of 1%, incidentally mitigating the encroaching pensions crisis, has kicked off a chain of explosions - explosions of racial paranoia, class hatred and misogyny. The tabloids, broadsheets and a few bewilderingly respected racist lobbying groups have lost no time in hosting a drooling orgy of dated ideology, merely because a significant portion of the babies being born are, apparently, the wrong sort of babies – babies from ethnic minorities, babies with immigrant parents and lone parents, black babies, poor babies. And according to Amanda Platell of the Mail and Melanie McDonagh of The Telegraph, what this means is that middle class, “Anglo-Saxon” women now have a duty to have more babies in their twenties. I have a spare set of sewing scissors around if anyone cares to unpick the various strands of racism, misogyny and class prejudice going on in those assumptions - let’s just say that it’s all intersectionally fucked. This is a feminist blog, however, so we’ll zone in on the feminism.

I'm going to work on the assumption that by "Anglo-Saxon...women", McDonagh is not making a complex statement on the superior genetic heritage of two of the many waves of immigrants to the British Isles in the past few millennia, the Angles and Saxons as opposed to, say, the Jutes or the Romans or the Vikings or the French, and is instead equivocating over her own racism: what she means to say is that 'white women should be having more babies.' And despite my Mediterranean-Slavic heritage, I'm fairly sure I'm one of the nice young lilywhite gels McDonagh wants to see breeding like paranoid supremacist bunnies.

To which my response is: fuck. Right. Off. I’m not going to be told when and how and with whom I may breed, by anyone, thanks. My body is mine: it’s not a tool of your crumbling kyriarchy, it’s not a self-replicating node in your future white race, and it's not a mute block to shore up a class structure contorting in the face of global migration. Fuck off with your misogynist frothings: I’m not anyone’s baby-making machine. I don’t care when I ‘should’ get pregnant. I’ll carry a child when I want, or not at all.

Moreover, the question begs itself: what precisely has been done over the past, hm, twenty-three years of my life to make it easy or attractive for me to have a child now that I’m in my twenties? Has anyone made it easier for me to combine childcare with my career? Is there a decent nursery placement system, a guarantee that I won’t be fired from my job? Can I definitely work flexibly or part-time and still bring in the money I’d need to raise a child in relative comfort? No? Then, as I may have mentioned, you can fuck right off.

The age when women had babies on everyone’s terms but theirs is dying, and when it finally dies myself and many other willing ladies will gladly line up to piss streams of contraceptive-hormone –laced urine on its sorry grave. Yes, I’m sure it was simpler when patriarchal capitalist social engineering could be affected by refusing to acknowledge a few billion women’s personal agency and capacity to say no. I’m sure it’d solve a few problems in the short term if one half of society suddenly went back to being an unpaid sub-class of slave labourers, squeezing out and raising babies of the correct class, creed and colour, all for free, for the good of the fatherland. But it’s not going to happen, and you can either accept that and work with us or you can shut up and quit your whining. Either way, you'll find yourself making space sooner or later in your boardrooms and offices and benches of justice for the children of 'foreign-born' mothers and for those mothers themselves.

The sublime irony of all this is that if women’s concerns had been taken on board back when we first started pressing for reproductive freedom, if we hadn’t had to spend the past decade fighting campaigns to defend the few precious rights we have to control our own lives and bodies, if we had a system to facilitate free, safe, legal abortion as early as possible and as late as necessary, if we had the morning after pill free and on demand and available in our own homes, if we had a decent childcare system and real, comprehensive sex education in schools instead of the piss-poor, prudish information we dribble out to our children,leaving them to get their education from pornography and television, if we had any or all of that then the right wouldn’t be finding themselves blindsided by sudden demographic change. Because what happens when one is miserly about reproductive freedom is that only certain women are able to exercise it, and those women are almost inevitably the richer ones.

It’s a staggering insult that, more than forty years after abortion was legalised and equal pay acts came into force, the commentariat is blaming women for the fact that the lucky ones amongst us are choosing to exercise the privilege of having fewer children, a privilege that should be every woman’s right. It’s insulting to blame women for exercising the limited choices they have rather than accepting the real consequences of keeping those choices limited.

Personally, I’m more than happy for the generation that comes after me to be - gasp! – over a quarter of immigrant heritage. But just for kicks, let’s go with the notion that a ‘middle class baby boom’ is actually something desirable. If this government and the next wants a greater proportion of babies born to middle-class mothers, it can start by making part-time working a real, highly paid option for men and women everywhere. Give everyone, not just parents, the right to request flexible working and home working, and end the throwback 9-to-5 working culture that’s destroying our mental health as a nation, not to mention our childcare arrangements. End discrimination against mothers and potential mothers in the workplace, and make combining motherhood and paid work a viable choice. Introduce comprehensive, compulsory sex education at every level of schooling from year 5 up – and make sure our children know more about sex and contraception than we did before we started having it. And whilst you’re at it, put some money into sorting out the damn education system so that more of the babies born to immigrant and single mothers will have a chance not to fulfil the disgusting sense of class destiny inherent in this week’s right-wing reasoning.

Reproductive freedom isn’t a fad; women are not going to suddenly get bored of pushing for emancipation at home and in the workplace. If the freedoms we have fought for continue to be restricted and distributed unequally, always with the threat of being repealed any minute, then demographic change won’t be the only surprise the socially conservative, racist right finds itself having to come to terms with. Women’s bodies can no longer be manipulated in the cause of elitist social engineering, especially not the bodies of middle-class women, who enjoy more comprehensive reproductive freedom than their less wealthy sisters. Rather than attempting to pressure and cajole middle-class women into reproducing, the right would do better to encourage education, childcare and reproductive emancipation across the board– not to prevent working-class, immigrant babies being born, but because education and reproductive freedom are every woman’s right, whatever her income, background or country of origin.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Watching the watchers: Climate Camp and the summer of rage

Shambling through the kitchen with my face in a massive plate of pasta last night, I heard the door crash open: my friend who shall henceforth be known as Activist Polly*, veteran of the summer of hate, had come back from Climate Camp.

'Oh my GOD, Laurie, it was awful,' she moaned. 'Climate Camp was full of hippies!'

The fact that Polly might have expected something different is key to the essential weirdness of Climate Camp. The idea is - well, it's not simple, but stay with me. It's a protest, you see, a four-day sit-in protest about...something. The environment. Capitalism, also. And associated...badnesses. And we swoop, you see, we all gather in various parts of the city and swoop, not walk, swoop, on text-command from our remote superiors towards a target which we don't know what it is yet but we'll definitely be told about on the day. Possibly we'll go to the Bank of England, and everyone will see, because it'll be in London. I'm certainly planning to take lots and lots of photographs. How about you?

Being a young cool lefty kind of person, I'm aware of many people who are at Climate Camp - and every single one of them has gone with the express or primary intention of taking photographs. Photographs of the protesters; photographs of the police, in particular, as public rage over not being allowed to turn the gaze of surveillance back on our beetle-backed overpigs is still simmering merrily away. Hundreds of amateur photographers - and that's not counting the thousands of press cameras, which reports from the frontline assure me practically outnumbered those who were officially there to protest. Every single one of them just waiting for something to kick off between the coppers and the crusties like it did at G20.

The question begs itself: if you have a protest where most people have gone along to take photographs of a protest happening, is that still a protest? If so, what about? In the case of Climate Camp, any original intentions seem to have been lost in a flurry of press taking pictures of the protesters taking pictures of the police taking pictures of us. Political voyeurism: marvellous, and utterly mad.

Climate Camp is, at root, a protest about having a protest. A glance at the extensive and exciting-sounding programme of workshops shows more sessions about - activism for students, community organising, the legacies of the Brixton riots, than sessions about the actual environment. M'ladies from Feminist Fightback, never previously the vegan police, have gone down to lead a workshop about the targeting of women in protest zones, tying it all together with Greenham Common. A glance at the shiny shiny website turns up 'Photos from the Camp', 'Media Circus Twitter Feed' and 'Our Open Letter to the Police' and precisely zero aims and objectives.

This is a virtual protest, conducted on Twitter and Flicker and in the newsfeeds of all the major paper sites, all waiting for something to happen, for the violence behind the screens to transfer to ephemeral meatspace reality. We've set the bar for the ultimate 21st-century direct action: a protest where nobody apart from press, photographers and twitterhounds turns up at all and they all have to watch each other and take pictures of each other in an infinitely recursive loop of pseudo-political voyeurism until we are all drained entirely or someone behind a camera screen somewhere stumbles across the face of truth.

This has been a hard, weird summer. People are in pain, and they are angry, young people in particular: but the response to that anger has been confused. A significant proportion of this summer's protestors have not been politically active before; hopelessness, worklessness or a dawning comprehension that they're all a bunch of bastards who want to screw us and then take pictures of it has driven a lot of young people into political activism, many of whom lacked an initial understanding of the issues involved. That's not necessarily a bad thing: but it changes the terms of this summer's political unrest to something more directionless, more systemic, more fundamentally frightening and exuberant.

All of those lost kids pulling on their flak-jackets and soft-shoeing it down to the police line, all of them have cameras in their pockets. Cameras are the contemporary semiotic equivalent of the concealed bottle, the brick in a sock, the pocketknife: they are understood as power in the hands of the people, gaze and evidence and connectivity and protection, keener than any blade.

Which is just as well, really, because if the majority of this summer's protestors hadn't though it was more effective to bring a camera to a demo than a big fuckoff stick, it might all have got a lot more bloody. There is anger, now, on the streets, in our living rooms, seething. The young are fed up and chancing for a fight. The Met police are on record saying they're 'up for it'; the people on the other side of the cordons want to kick something off; the press and hundreds of amateur photographers want to be there behind a screen taking notes when that thing, whatever it is, kicks off.

The irony is of course, that is IS kicking off - in Birmingham and Codnor and in a score of other places away from the glare of the cameras, neo-nazis are trading blows with anti-fascists, feminists are marching, socialists are organising. But outside London, the press aren't interested; instead, we're drawn to the pretend protest, the virtual protest. Instead, we're all standing on the protest line behind little flashing screens, watching them watching us watching them.

*Activist Polly wishes it to be clear that she does not agree with the content of this article and that any comments about fucking hippies were made strictly in jest.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Being a Woman: Germaine Greer, Caster Semenya and gender paranoia

This is painful for me. I was scribbling notes in 'The Female Eunuch' and 'The Whole Woman' before I lost all my milkteeth; I worship her irreverent, punchy prose; but there's no escaping it. These days, Germaine Greer is a prejudiced, ignorant dickwad.

In her rather confused verdict on the Caster Semenya controversy, Greer comes up with the following gem today:

'Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women's names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man's delusion that he is female.'

In dismissing all transpeople as 'ghastly parodies', Greer hardly does any better in the grand game of unthinking prejudice bingo than the disgusting commentators who have decided that just because Semenya, a phenomenally high-achieving athlete, is big, butch and brilliant at sports, she can't be a girl. Let's take a little look at what womanhood is, according to Greer and others.

Greer believes that my 'womanhood' is defined by my tits, my bleeding cunt and my XX chromosome. She also believes that 'woman' should be my primary identity: before I think of myself as a writer, a journalist, a sister, a daughter, a lover, a friend, a consumer of trashy vampire novels, I should consider myself "a woman, first". In other words: my cunt and tits are what make me, me. Well, gonads to that.

What defines this holy femininity, in the radical feminist assessment? Is it having breasts? Having a twat? Being curvy? Being fertile? Having an XX chromosome? Yes? Well, then, it clearly sucks to be one of the significant proportion of women who are none of these things, excluding the trans population for a moment: the women all over the world who lack breasts after mastectomy or a quirk of biology; women who are born without vaginas, or who are victims of FGM; women who are androgynously skinny, naturally or because of illness; women who are infertile or post-menopausal; or the 0.1% of women who are intersex. Who's to say that these people are not women too, if womanhood is the gender identity that they prefer? Greer shares something with Christian Fundamentalists here: none of them are interested in the actual social and biological science behind their unthinking assumptions.

In fact, 'womanhood' is not a holy, immutable quality. 'Womanhood' encompasses a complex spectrum of biological facts just as 'femininity' encompasses a huge range of social and cultural factors. 'Woman' is not a binary fact, set irretrievably and forever against 'Man'. The reason that radical feminists and social conservatives alike find transpeople so terribly threatening is that they know this better than anyone else.

Transpeople know that however much it happens to mean to you, femininity is, in fact, something that can be bought from a shop*. They know that identity is fluid and that womanhood itself is not a fixed biological quantity. They know that the state of being a woman or being a man is something imposed from without, something that can be altered, and they are living, breathing proof of that radical truth. And that's horribly threatening to recalcitrants everywhere.

Let's come back to Caster Semenya, whose physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us. I for one am disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-acheiving woman who is not stereotypically 'feminine' is an aberration, and therefore must actually be a man. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; her genetics have nothing to do with it. The insistence by the IAAF that she 'prove' she is a woman - as if there were any concrete way of doing such a thing - is sexist on every level.

For the sake of argument, though, let's suppose just for one minute that Semenya does turn out to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with Androgen Insensitivity syndrome. Suppose that this incredible athlete, who feels that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women's sports, a female and feminine physical feat, happens to be amongst the 0.1% of women without an XX genotype. Why on earth is that a problem? And why should that disqualify her from women's sports? What, are they going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others? Or will she be ostracised from the world of sport altogether because her body does not support the binary ideology of the IAAF?

The sporting world is a cultural throwback, as paranoid over the maintenance of strict gender binaries as, well, as your average Greerite radical feminist. But if we truly want to progress as a species - if we want to celebrate sporting acheivement, if we want to strive collectively and individually to run faster and swim stronger and jump higher and think more clearly, our frantic cultural drive to uphold gender as a holy and immutable binary is the first thing we need to abandon.
*For more on this and the capitalist connotations of femininity, I heartily recommend the excellent essay Mama Cash: Buying and Selling Genders by Charles Anders, available in several essay collections, although unfortunately I can't find it online!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

What Women Want

The past week I've been absent, alternating work with frantic end-of-tenancy cleaning of a house in exactly the state you'd expect after eighteen months of sheltering six extremely depressed precariously employed young people and Neets let down by the government and the economy, surviving on a pittance, on which more later. I have bleach poisoning, and possibly also vial's disease. But right now I have half an hour free, waiting for my small sister to arrive so I can show her the bright lights of London; so I thought I'd point any of you who haven't seen in the direction of Filament magazine.

Filament is a fantastic project, set up by Suraya Sidhu Singh, a multi-talented friend of mine. It's a magazine designed to show erotic images of men that please women, as a counter to the market saturation of male-gaze-oriented images of women, with the assumption that women are actually allowed to have desire of their own, rather than just being the objects of it. So far, so uncontroversial, right? Wrong!

Filament has been in the press recently after Comment Is Free decided to run with the story about how their publishers refused to print tasteful images of an erect penis, deeming them 'offensive' in a culture awash with soft- to hardcore images of breasts and fannies selling everything from porn to purifying facial wash. The extreme controversy and popularity of the article may have something to do with the fact that it's all about knobs (knobs! In the shops!) and has an erection pun in its title. But the piece and the comments are both worth a read if you've ever been interested in the sexual double standard - the same sexual double standard that you, right now, have a chance to do a little something to lessen by supporting Filament. Get ready, here comes the whorebaggery:

To stay in print, Filament needs you to buy an issue, or even, which you can do here. It's full of terribly pretty boys as well as interesting thinkpieces by men and women at the cutting edge of contemporary magazine journalism. They're halfway to their target already- all they need is a little help from open-minded people [and girls with a spare fiver who like to get their rocks off looking at arty pictures of tasty, nubile manflesh].

In case you needed even more persuasion, there's also a regular 'Ask A Feminist' agony aunt column, written by moderately-known shoutyblogger Penny Red, which I hear tell is an absolutely fantastic read, and only a fool would think otherwise. Go and buy the magazine, take back the gaze, and keep knobs in shops.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

We love the NHS! Sort of.

This article has also been published at The Huffington Post, with thanks to my boyfriend, Andy, for letting me pillage his life story for cheap points. I love you, baby.

My partner suffers from a bone disorder which requires regular operations, paid for by the British NHS. His most recent procedure was performed without anaesthetic by a drunken surgeon wielding a rusty hacksaw. As I forced a mouldy rag between his teeth to stifle his screams, an official wearing Nazi insignia burst in and informed us that limbs were not considered an NHS spending priority, so dirty chisels were employed to remove both his legs and one of his arms for good measure. My partner is now a triple amputee, and I am forced to prostitute myself for heroin to numb the pain of living in an Orwellian super-state. God save the queen.

This decidedly made-up story is hardly more ridiculous than the lies that Republicans have been peddling about the NHS all week. To set a few spluttering records straight: patients over 59 are not denied heart surgery; Professor Sir Stephen Hawking has personally come forward to say that he would not be alive without the NHS; and Republican hysteria over ‘death panels’ reflects more accurately the situation in the United States than in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, lofty officials get to choose how best to allocate a finite amount of healthcare funding – the difference is that the NHS bases decisions on its analysis of how best to deliver equitable healthcare for all, rather than basing decisions on the interests of its shareholders.

Brits all over the world have been stepping forward to defend the NHS, with ‘welovethenhs’ becoming a trending topic on Twitter this week, surely the ultimate signifier of public passion. The British are proud of our healthcare system, and even members of the Conservative party have pledged to defend it, knowing that without promising to uphold socialised healthcare their chances of election success would vanish.

What Obama is proposing is not a simple transposition of the NHS, although it will make for a fairer system if it passes Congress. He is right not to base his plan on the British setup: the NHS has its flaws. It’s not a simple case of NHS good, medicare bad.The reality, as ever, is much more complex, and is being obscured by half-truths, frothing right-wing paranoia and outright lies.

My partner’s illness, however, is real – so let me tell you what really happens.

Whenever he needs an operation, my partner receives top-quality care from our local hospital – eventually. Because his debilitating, agonising condition is not life-threatening, he normally has to wait many months for the free operations, and the process of consultation and aftercare varies on a sliding scale from risible to non-existent.

On the other hand, his disability makes him unfit for most work, and were we US citizens my meagre half-salary would doubtless put us amongst the 43 million Americans with no healthcare cover at all. We can and do complain about the NHS – being British, it’s one of our favourite hobbies – but the specialist painkillers he needs to get through his worst days are free, and they will remain free for the rest of his life.

It isn’t easy for my partner, being 25 years old and facing a lifetime of pain and limited mobility. He worries about his future; I worry, among other things, that any children we decide to have will inherit his condition. But one thing we never have to worry about is being able to afford those vital operations, or the medication that keeps him stable.

Moreover, if I were to fall pregnant tomorrow, even on my low-income I would be treated to regular check-ups, help to quit smoking with free NHS classes, ante-and-post natal care, and food vouchers so that I could afford to drink milk, eat vegetables and take supplements to safeguard my health and the health of the fetus. By contrast, staggering inequalities in the US healthcare system mean that the United States has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world.

I’m proud to live in a country with ‘socialised’ healthcare. For all its faults, its shoddy waiting lists and its dreadful dental care, the NHS system erases health inequalities and relieves millions of people, rich and poor, from the burden of constant anxiety about medical bills and sudden sickness. Even more importantly, it creates the progressive impression that the physical and mental health of the nation is the collective responsibility of all its citizens. In the process, without making a fuss about it, the British NHS truly upholds the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. If that’s socialism, then sign me up.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Not feeding the trolls: comments policy

Okay, guys, listen up. The Penny Red trollbridge is getting crowded. Since I instituted the comments policy back in May, the situation has actually got worse, not better. Half of the comments on here now are either pointless personal attacks or ugly, childish misogynist or fascist rants. Some of the best commentators have been driven away, and I've lost count of the number of times I've had people come up to me and say 'I used to visit your blog, but then the comments got awful'.

...Bad trolls. No more snackies for you.

So as of this week, if nothing changes, I'm turning the moderated comments back on. This post isn't moderated, so feel free to chip in below if you have an opinion on whether or not this is the right thing to do.

I really didn't want to have to do this. It makes me sad, because I want to value everyone's contribution. It also makes me mightily pissed off because, in case you hadn't guessed from the number of recent cross-posts, I am up to my tiny eyeballs in work at the moment and the last thing I need is to have to go back to personally checking every comment before it goes live. So here, my friends, is one last chance.

If in the next few days the posts on this blog do not turn up any new misogynist, hateful, pointlessly invective, irrelevant, off-topic or gratuitously lewd comments that don't contribute to the debate, I'll consider keeping the unmoderated format open. Go on, guys. Prove me wrong.

ETA: moderated comments on!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

More shameless whorebaggery

My article on Harman, misandry and honest feminism is currently thread of the day on Comment Is Free, along with a tiny picture of me looking very sulky indeed. Come on in and join the fray, the stupid is out in predictable force!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Review: The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism

I’m facing a feminist dilemma. A few weeks ago, I agreed to review a book for this site, a book written by a friend and ally of mine, a woman I deeply respect. The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism by Ellie Levenson is an attempt to merge the type of froth-feminism peddled by Cosmopolitan and Glamour into something more meaningful and coherent. It’s a flouncily inoffensive go-to guide for the type of modern woman who likes the idea of self-respect and empowerment but is frightened that feminist politics comes with a mandatory buzz-cut, all wrapped up in a kitsch pink cover with the ubiquitous pair of disembodied stillettoed legs that screams “whatever this is it’s disguised as chick-lit!” Unfortunately, the disguise works a little too well.

Which is where my dilemma begins. I agree that feminism needs to reach out to the mainstream, to women who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as feminists, but still enjoy the rights feminism has won for them. I applaud the fact that more feminist books are being written with today’s young women in mind. I’m definitely over the moon that one of my feminist mentors has finally managed to secure a publishing deal and expand the remit of websites like The F-Word which have kept the coals of feminist movement glowing in these dim post-backlash times. But I can’t get around it: The Noughtie Girls Guide to Feminism makes me angry. It makes me want to throw things at walls. It makes me want to actually set fire to my actual bra whilst I’m still wearing it and run flaming through the streets of Hackney yelling “How did we come to this?”

Petty arson aside, the real heartbreak of Noughtie Girls is that both the concept and execution are so very spot on. I adore the fluffy, frilly presentation, the demotic language, the stubborn refusal to get bogged down in high theory, which has its place, but not in an introductory book for sceptical feminists. I love the way the whole thing is structured in bitesize crossheads, making it easy to open at any page and find something interesting. I even like the silly little Cosmo-esque “what kind of feminist are you?” quiz at the front of the book, which shaves gleefully close to self-parody. It’s perfect Tube-reading. It’s fun. It’s accessible. It’s the sort of thing that I might give my little sister for Christmas, sandwiched between something smelly from The Body Shop. But here’s the rub: it apologises too damn much.

The book comes across as an apology for a brand of ‘man-bashing, bra-burning’ feminism that never really existed. It spends altogether too much time dismantling the straw woman of the feminist who would forbid pretty young ladies from waxing their legs and wearing pink, and altogether too little time explaining why it is that that sort of feminist only exists in the nightmare fantasy Britain conjured up by editors at the Daily Mail. It spends so much time debunking the myth, telling its readers that it’s okay to be a ‘Noughtie Girl’ who likes high heels and pink drinks, that it ends up reinforcing the idea that ‘traditional’ feminism is something to fight against.

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.