I am not a mother. I do not care for an elderly relative. Fortunately, I do not suffer from domestic violence. These topics still interest me in a general way, and I recognise that women are disproportionately affected by many related issues. I am also, whilst happening to be a woman, interested in the economy, the environment, welfare, foreign policy… the list goes on. I am not alone.
When Harriet Harman listed the former as among the topics the now infamous Pink Bus would include in its attempts to engage women, it was the exclusion of the latter from the list that really alienated me. Perhaps some of the 9 million women who didn’t vote in the last election, the women who are now being targeted by such schemes, feel the same way. Perhaps, just perhaps, some of the 9 million women who didn’t vote last time around have the same motivations and concerns as some of the 8 million men who didn’t vote.
The kitchen vs the boardroom table
The most damning moment for the Pink Bus was the description from Lucy Powell, general election co-ordinator, claiming Labour wanted to “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” not an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table”.
This polarisation is toxic. It’s retro sexism of the highest degree, but it’s also a first rate example of the problems which can arise when women’s participation and what are described as “women’s topics” are boxed separately from the larger spectrum of political issues. Household economy and the boardroom are not mutually exclusive interests, nor are they unrelated.
Fortunately, as I spend exactly zero time at school gates and more time at work than loitering in shopping centres (although when I do, please don’t zone in to talk childcare at me whilst I’m elbowing my way down the sale rack) I’m unlikely to be approached by the Pink Bus in my natural habitat. I’m a moving target, like lots of women, unable to be pinned down by out-of-date ideas on what I’m thinking.
It’s been observed that when women talking politics stray too far from anything considered a “pink” topic, the opposition, and at times abuse, becomes louder and more dismissive, from politics to sports to video game journalism. Declaring the boundaries of what constitutes women’s interests excludes an awful lot of topics that affect them equally as much, or even more. Misguided schemes like this, and attempts to dismiss or attack women’s contributions have some thoughts in common.
As a feminist, I’m heartened that more and more men feel able to take on the role of primary caregiver in their families. Women still shoulder the vast majority of childcare, but stay at home fathers have been on the sharp increase for the last decade. This happens for two primary reasons: a cultural shift in attitudes towards family roles, and because of a growth in female breadwinners. In this context too, and for “women’s issues”, what happens in the boardroom is relevant to the kitchen table.
Engaging with the wider picture
Because women are still underrepresented in politics across the spectrum, from elected posts to discussion panel appearances, creating space for a greater number of women to engage with politics is an important strategy in tackling inequality. The concerns, and importantly, voices, of those who really do care first and foremost about childcare and the kitchen budget shouldn’t and don’t exist in a pink vacuum. Attempts to specifically engage with women work when the focus is to welcome women into the wider political arena as a whole, and to empower and encourage women to discuss foreign policy as well as domestic abuse. Grassroots campaign group Women For Independence recently ran seminars on introductory economics, an example of a practical way to encourage women to engage with the wider picture.
These things work when women’s voices aren’t segregated to the kitchen. And they work when domestic abuse, sexual assault, childcare and so on aren’t seen as just women’s issues, separate from the bigger picture, but part of it, and tackled within it. Inclusive, not exclusive.