On balance, 2016 was a year of highs and lows for women. The lows, however, have been of the “how-low-can-you-go” variety. In fact, there have been moments when it felt like the year of the anti-woman.
By the measure of women’s greater visibility in politics, 2016 has been a vintage year. I can’t think of another in which there has been so much conversation and public debate about women, ranging from the probing and aspirational to the prodding and vicious.
Gender (and sex) has dominated the news, with endless discussion of individual women leaders, of the women’s vote, of the gender gap, of tangible and figurative glass ceilings, of female body parts, and of women victims of violent crisis.
In Britain, the EU referendum campaign may have neglected gender issues, but it also created opportunities for women. Four out of six panelists at the pre-referendum Wembley debate were women. Within a fortnight of the fateful Brexit vote, the Conservative Party produced its second woman Prime Minister in the form of Theresa May. For several weeks after the referendum, Angela Eagle challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. She was ultimately elbowed out by a man, but Labour in Scotland is led by a woman, as indeed, are all the main parliamentary parties there.
Those who were musing about this possibly freakish phenomenon of the feminisation of politics wondered if what was really happening was that women were cleaning up a man-made mess. They suggested that these woman leaders could heal wounds after the testosterone-fueled war of words unleashed by a most polarising referendum campaign.
The keynotes of this rhetoric were women’s innate diplomacy and their essential motherly conciliation. This discourse echoed the post-war period and the 1920s, when women made a sincere effort to prevent another man-made war with a woman-made peace. In the 1920s, women mobilised for disarmament and to eliminate militarism from the school curriculum. The early women MPs strongly identified themselves with women’s peace initiatives.
Yet, it was the shocking assassination of MP Jo Cox that will forever serve as the most painful reminder of what 2016 has stood for, and no less what it represents for women in public life. Her murder by far-right adherent Thomas Mair should not be reduced to an act of sexism but anti-feminism and misogyny have always been intrinsically intertwined with racism and xenophobia.
The power and prejudice of 2016’s post-truth, angry politics, has made other women politicians vulnerable, too. Jewish women MPs in the UK have borne the brunt of both Labour’s confrontation with anti-Semitism in its ranks and of an emboldened far right. We saw this in the abuse suffered by Liverpool MP Louise Ellman from elements from within her own party, as well as the experience of Ruth Smeeth MP, who was subjected to a torrent of 25,000 vile messages after walking out of the launch of a report on anti-Semitism within Labour. Luciana Berger MP was the victim of systematic online racist abuse, her neo-Nazi stalker finally convicted of these offences.
One step forward, two steps to the right
High profile women are inevitably more vulnerable. But does having women in top leadership positions promote the causes and concerns of most women?
Theresa May has deliberately identified herself with a certain brand of feminism that can be compatible with British Toryism. She co-founded a campaign for women’s political representation in 2005 and famously wore the t-shirt of the Fawcett Society long before anyone was talking about her leather trousers.
There was disappointment from many quarters that May did not appoint more women to her cabinet than her predecessor, but Margaret Thatcher is not her model for how to perform her gender in office. While Thatcher was famously hostile to feminism, May is of a generation that more readily embraces feminist achievements, and she can work well with other women.
Women in Europe
In the 1930s, feminist internationalist and novelist Winifred Holtby was particularly alarmed about what authoritarianism and fascism meant for women. She noted that “whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker, and the human being.” This rings true today.
Yet, remarkably, in 2016, the greatest success came to women on the right and far-right. Although Diane James lasted just 18 days as leader of UKIP, the party continues to regularly put its women forward for media appearances to feminise nationalism.
Despite setbacks, Angela Merkel still looks likely to be re-elected as German chancellor in 2017, while Beata Szydło is prime minister in Poland, overseeing a disturbing slide towards authoritarianism – even if she herself is more the titular leader of the Law and Justice Party.
And of course, the increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France has been a major story for 2016. She remains a leading contender for the French presidency in 2017, so expect more from her before long.
The biggest upset
It hardly needs to be said that the greatest blow for women has been the American election. Even had Hillary Clinton won, the election campaign would have been traumatic enough for women: politically, sexually, psychologically, and emotionally.
Pollsters and pundits counted on the women’s vote to take down Trump. Instead, this man, who has so openly looked down on women, will now do so from the Oval Office. The very notion of a “woman’s vote” is in tatters– for better and worse. When the realisation of Trump’s victory set in, faces were streaming with tears.
These tears were shed not merely because a preferred candidate lost but more so because the hopes of so many – accumulating for almost a century, since suffrage – had been so forcibly dashed. The glass ceiling has been fortified. Under a Trump presidency, the best women can expect is an ostentatiously gilded cage for the few who meet the former reality TV star and beauty contest judge’s exacting standards.
Historical reflection cannot offer future projection. However, the cycles of modern feminism are figured by the cresting and the crashing of waves. Tallying up women’s most newsworthy achievements and setbacks, 2016 has not been a good year for women and certainly not for feminism. It has been an anti-woman year.