Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism


5:17 pm - August 2nd 2009

by Laurie Penny    


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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Harman is right to suggest that having the top jobs in the Labour party filled exclusively by men is a terrible and outdated idea, as it would be for any political party.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 usually* 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.


*I previously used the word ‘invariably’ here, thinking that ‘usually’ and ‘invariably’ were synonymous. My bad!

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Richard Gadsden

“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”

That’s just not true. A quarter of the time it would be two men, a quarter two women and half the time one of each (half with a woman leader, half with a male leader).

Basic statistics isn’t that hard. You’re guilty in that sentence of Harriet’s problem – of saying untruths in arguing a reasonable argument. It’s hard to defend feminism when feminists say things that are either stupid or false.

Doesn’t three-quarters of the time count as ‘invariably’? I think you rather emphasise my point: if we were truly meritocratic, around three quarters of the time we’d have a woman in at least one of the two top jobs. QED.

Laurie – you’ve done a wonderful job here of defending Ms Harman by assuming she didn’t mean exactly what she said.

Your version, albeit better than Harman’s, is still wrong of course: assuming equal capability, equal access and equal merit, there is no reason that a two-person leadership team would “invariably” include a woman. Even if equally represented in the PLP (which women aren’t), a random selection for the top two jobs would see women miss out on both a full 25% of the time (MF, FM, FF, MM).

I’d like to see Parliament, and its leadership, more representative but clumsy tokenism is precisely why Ms Harman’s brand of equality is despised as often on the Left as the Right. The problem is the determination for specificity – I can almost accept as valid someone calling for a representative chamber to have 51% women, but to say that of two top jobs that precisely one person should be chosen from each sex is exactly the idiocy that even the Green Party has recently abandoned.

I think you’ve been too generous here – I don’t think the Deputy Leader’s general approach to gender equality is half as nuanced as you’ve presented, and I’d suggest today’s statement was only as ham-fisted as the thinking (or lack thereof) behind it.

I took ‘invariably’ to mean ‘most of the time, more often than not’. My point, as I’ve said before, remains that whereas, as you say, statistically speaking women should be in one of the two top jobs 75% of the time, In the Labour Party’s history women have held top posts just twice out of 32 potential occasions. Since 1983, a woman has been in one of the top jobs only 10% of the time, and a woman has never led the Labour Party.

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.

I’m not sure this follows. Suppose the average (i.e. mean) capability of men and women is exactly the same; suppose further that there is higher variance in the distribution for men than for women, so there are more men in the tails at either side. The result would be that men would be found disproportionately in the top jobs, while it still being false that ‘women are somehow innately inferior.’ I’m not endorsing this explanation, but it does show a hole in your logic.

But I’m *not* supposing that more men are at both ends of the distribution curve than women. I believe that there are as many extremely talented women in the world as there are men – and I’ve yet to see any research proving otherwise that wasn’t hearsay. IMHO, the ‘bell curve’ thesis is thinly veiled misogyny – a slightly more acceptable way of being able to say that men are superior to women in public, and get away with it.

7. Forlornehope

Trench foot, that logic would have got you fired as Dean of Harvard!

Trying to break down the stats down aside – the basic point still stands: why aren’t more women represented in politics. And if the system was truly more meritocratic then there would be many more women at the top.

Now, the Tories hate any sort of a quotas based approach – but actually it can work over the longer term, even if it produces some duffs over the short term. The Democrats are a good example: they’ve had a form of affirmative action within the party for blacks and women, which produced more identity politics for a while.

But over a longer period of time it was pushed genuinely good politicians to the forefront in both those demographics. It’s crude but it works.

In this case, I think Harman is right to raise the debate – and frankly so what if the Tories are outraged? Let them remain unrepresentative, it will only hurt their electoral prospects.

To clarify – my point is let Harriet Harman raise the debate within the Labour party. The left should be having a debate about why there isn’t more change in politics and whether quotas can help or not (and I’d like to see an evidence based approach please, not just ppl talking about loose principles. All women shortlists worked).

Politics isn’t meritocratic right now. Not by any stretch of the imagination – for class, gender and race. If the Labour party has an internal debate about how that can be changed – then it will be the one that benefits. I don’t see why the Tories are getting outraged – they’re welcome to a party out of touch with Britain.

Look. Even studies which appear to back up the bell curve claim show that up to the age of 14, IQ is the same for both boys and girls . IQ tests are fairly meaningless anyway, since they were designed by men [EG William Stern in 1912] to standardise tests for the skills men thought were important. The tests imply almost nothing after the age of about 6 or 7, when outside influences – things like confidence, for example – skew the results too much for the tests to be a true determinant of innate ability or potential. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4183166.stm.

@Sunny – well, precisely.

I don’t see why the Tories are getting outraged – they’re welcome to a party out of touch with Britain.

I’d imagine they’re less outraged than amused and delighted. Not just by Harman’s foot-in-mouth, but also the prospect that, if Labour’s deranged enough to implement her idea, the woman filling that quota of one for the next several years would be…Harriet Harman.

Politics isn’t meritocratic right now. Not by any stretch of the imagination – for class, gender and race.

Sorry Sunny, but I can’t let that one through. Measures taken to try to generate a more representative batch of politicians are anti-meritocratic (having an all woman shortlist excludes the possibility of a man being elected in spite of the missing candidate, perhaps, being the best candidate).

You ask for an evidence based approach to debating this but, of course, that is impossible as judgements on the results of the experiment are bound to be subjective. You might think, for example, that Jackie Smith was a great Home Secretary and I might think she was awful and had been promoted way beyond her capabilities.

Oh well. OK. She agreed with me too………

Just to clear things up for future reference, the Compact OED defines “invariably” as “adverb: always”. Therefore, intentionally using it to mean “three quarters of the time” is rather sloppy.

“In this case, I think Harman is right to raise the debate”. I’m not so sure. As the article rightly points out, Harman is (at best) a horrible communicator. If gender equality is desired, it might be best if she ignored the debate altogether, for fear of driving it backwards.

15. Richard Gadsden

Doesn’t three-quarters of the time count as ‘invariably’?

No. Invariably means 100% of the time. Words have meanings; you’re not Humpty Dumpty.

16. Richard Gadsden

I think you rather emphasise my point: if we were truly meritocratic, around three quarters of the time we’d have a woman in at least one of the two top jobs.

You don’t get to decide what your point is; the reader does. So don’t take the risk of being misinterpreted.

Thanks – I genuinely had thought ‘invariably’ meant ‘usually’, rather than ‘always’. I won’t make that mistake again, and I’m going to change it in the article to avoid any further misunderstandings. I’ll leave these comments up of course.

“In this case, I think Harman is right to raise the debate – and frankly so what if the Tories are outraged?”

I suspect more than just the Tories will be outraged by this. She’s being slated on LabourHome and Liberal Vision as well.

19. Chris Baldwin

“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.”

Oh please. “men cannot be left to run things on their own” is blatantly a statement that such a thing would be undesirable, not impossible.

20. Mike Killingworth

[5] Harvard University’s firing policy aside, I wonder if there might not be something in this, for a slightly different reason. I suppose we’re talking about the Parliamentary Labour Party here.

Let’s suppose that it selected all its candidates by a lottery (and let’s also pretend that all the existing MPs are standing down). Now the lottery can only select people who put their names forward. If most of these are male – as I think is the case – then the upshot will be that the most talented fraction (whatever that fraction is) of Labour MPs will contain more men than women even if the “tail” is the same for both sexes.

This may well approximate to reality, even though there’s no lottery and a lot of MPs are staying on (if the electorate will let them). And the imbalance may well be compounded by the fact that the apparently preferred career trajectory of University politics – networking – think tank – parachute into safe seat is one that men find more attractive than women do.

It’s noticeable that the one thing Harman doesn’t do is call in the EOC, who would no doubt be delighted to take the chance of rootling around in the inner processes of a (supposedly serious) political party. Perhaps she’s afraid that if she did,.the EOC might discover that the Labour Party discriminates against other groups (blacks, the disabled) more than it does against women; or that the main factor which puts women off is the in-fighting and backbiting which is the very stuff of politics.

Anyway, we all know that she thinks that the Party should be led by a woman-called-Harriet and indeed I think she is onto something there – ever since its foundation 109 years ago Labour has never had enough women-called-Harriet in its Parliamentary Party, NEC or Shire and Town Hall Labour Groups. This state of affairs, no less disgraceful for being so little noticed, should be rectified pronto, i.e. after the next General Election. And I will make a prediction – however many seats Labour is reduced to next year (and the best prediction has Labour and the Lib Dems on less than 200 between them) her leadership will cost it at least three dozen more seats in the one after that.

Nevertheless, they’ll elect you, Hattie. Just keep whining to make assurance doubly sure, though.

21. Richard Gadsden

Thanks Penny, a gracious and wise response.

As for the substance, I think you’re largely right. We don’t have a meritocracy; the problems are IMO structural and extend far beyond politics, which is why all-women shortlists are, at best, a small part of the solution – not least because they can’t easily be repeated for other forms of bias (what would all working-class shortlists look like?) and that they blind people to problems that can’t be solved that way.

Structural changes to society are both harder and will take longer – and role models certainly help in that transformation, but just having more women in senior positions won’t magically fix a whole society still significantly built on patricarchal assumptions.

Hi Laurie,

Interesting article as ever.

From your article, and the comments, there seems to be a consensus that a “meritocratic” system for choosing leaders would be a good idea, as would a “meritocratic” society.

Two objections to this:

– the way that our society defines “merit” tends to discriminate against women

– I think democracy, where power rests in the hands of all the people not just an elite, is a better alternative to meritocracy

Richard has the start of what I think is the key point. Theres no contest that women are greatly underrepresented in politics- and I don’t really doubt that situation in Westminister contains plenty of discrimination contributing to this.

Candidate selection for Parliament is local, however, and there I expect the picture is very mixed so its difficult for me to comment. I don’t expect that theres no discrimination, but I also don’t think it is enough to explain the degree of the deficit.

The social roles of women, the way our culture encourages women towards certain tasks, the placing of a much larger part of household and childrearing burdens on women… Issues like there undoubtedly play a large role in preventing more women becomming involved in politics. There are simply fewer women putting themselves forward, meaning that even if the democratic systems were completly meritocratic there would be a lot more men in charge.

Theres also an issue that, well, we expect such disparities to reduce as new generations move up in our political structures- but younger people are just ignoring party structures, possibly entrenching more old-fashioned views.

24. dreamingspire

It was about 50 years ago that I discovered Sir Eric James (later Lord James) saying that this is the age of meritocracy. Remembering that, I also remembered something that came a little later (10 years later?) ‘This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius’ (Hair the musical). It seems that we lost the plot in the late 1960s.

@Penny Red

Look. Even studies which appear to back up the bell curve claim show that up to the age of 14, IQ is the same for both boys and girls . IQ tests are fairly meaningless anyway, since they were designed by men [EG William Stern in 1912] to standardise tests for the skills men thought were important. The tests imply almost nothing after the age of about 6 or 7, when outside influences – things like confidence, for example – skew the results too much for the tests to be a true determinant of innate ability or potential. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4183166.stm.

Sorry to pick you up on an early point but with ref to the above – really? IQ tests haven’t existed in a vacuum since 1912, they’ve been constantly updated since, come in many different forms, and the role of culture in influencing IQ as measured by tests thoroughly dissected. As I understand it they are fine as a general measure if you are comparing socially equivalent groups. Can you back up your criticism with references?
Also, regarding gender cognitive and behavioural differences, they exist. There are plausible mechanisms why they exist (hormonal differences, genes on X chromosome), and there is evidence that although average cognitive differences between men and women barely amount to significance the height of the distribution curve is significantly different, ie there are significant differences between genders at the tail end of curves.

Does anybody seriously believe that our politicians – of whichever sex – are actually comprised of those anywhere near the end of the IQ bell curve??

Well, maybe the wrong end…

27. Shatterface

Most of them are from the bell-end curve.

Anyway,

‘- the way that our society defines “merit” tends to discriminate against women

– I think democracy, where power rests in the hands of all the people not just an elite, is a better alternative to meritocracy’

and a third objection to ‘meritocracy’ is that Michael Young invented the word for a satirical novel, not a template for social change. His point was that a ‘meritocracy’ is unequal, self-perpetuating and undemocratic. The narrator, who supports the system, is lynched at the end.

‘The Rise of Meritocracy’ is a great book and I don’t know why it is not read as widely as ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’

Good stuff… my comment on the other thread probably belongs here:

Just imagine if Harman is the next Labour PM and then, mid-term, the deputy leader resigns. Will Harman tell all the women in parliament that they are not allowed to stand for the post because they are women? I’d be quite happy with two women at the top, as much as I’m comfortable with two men, the issue is whether they are any good and have been put there through some democratic process.

I would add though that meritocracy should not be the basis of politics. It’s democracy that counts. People shouldn’t get into government because they’re clever, smart or accomplished. They should get in because they have won the support of those whom they will govern.

Meritocracy has a place in society of course, but it is a very dangerous idea in politics as it can disenfranchise the less able and promote intellectual snobbery, where the views of the less educated can easily be ignored.

@Shatterface

Indeed. I should have read your post first.

Cross posted from Sunny’s thread:

Sunny:

In other words – it would make more sense for Labour to force a political debate on why parliament has remained white and male for so long. Then they should ask what the Tories plan to do about it and watch them squirm.

Well, they’ve had 12 years to do just that, and the best idea they had was the first – the all-women shortlists for safer seats – which (for all its problems) could be viewed as a deliberate short-term boost to get to ‘normalising’ diversity a bit quicker, after which (ideally) the legislation could be repealed. (See also the quotas allocated to women in emerging democracies?)

On the other hand, New Labour seem more concerned with counting the number of female faces on each side, thinking they’ve won the argument because they have more of them, and that anyone who challenges the simplistic nature of such an approach to feminism and equality is a howwid sexist bully. But then, New Labour’s lack of ideological rigour is nothing new – it’s what makes Cameron’s photo-op approach in Norwich North possible. It’s hard to see how Harman can make the Tories squirm if she argues about ‘men’ (while mysteriously exempting Brown) rather than sexism – but that means talking about ideology and power, which I’m increasingly convinced isn’t her strong point in this case because she keeps making the same flawed argument.

I’d only like to add that Laurie makes a better case than Harman, though I’d also suggest that government can at the very least create the framework and laws to support the idea of equality as a means of articulating its vision of ‘the good society’.

PS: I’d been led to believe that ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ was a satire not a manifesto.

Many men – Max M. among them – would pay hard cash to be beaten black and blue by the Harperson and Jackie Jackboots and cute Lil’ Hazel Blairs.

The trio would make a fine dominatrix team; they ought to consider this change of career field after the next election.

32. Shatterface

‘PS: I’d been led to believe that ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ was a satire not a manifesto.’

Exactly. It belongs to the tradition of Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

‘The Rise of Meritocracy’ is a great book and I don’t know why it is not read as widely as ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984′

Is he Toby Young’s father and is there any chance of Young jnr getting royalties if I bought or borrowed it?

I want to know why it is that nobody on this blog has written about Jo Swinson’s latest proposals (http://www.liberal-vision.org/2009/08/03/jo-swinsons-misguided-maternalism/) which Harman backs

one of the two top jobs would usually* go to a woman – if not both. To claim otherwise is to admit to a belief that women are somehow innately inferior.

Is there no possible other reason than a belief in female inferiority for expecting more men than women at the top in politics ?

(like, say, the entire body of recorded history ? that’s just an example though)

Sy rightly points out that the most obvious female candidate for leader when the next vacancy occurs is… Harman herself.

And this raises the tension between the general principle that there should be equal representation at the top and the specific representatives themselves – the issue that bedevils all questions of affirmative action.

Now, the current Labour party is not exactly awash with exciting prospects when it comes to future leadership candidates but in all the threads about the desirability of Brown standing down that have appeared on this site in the last year or so, I can’t remember many which advocated a female candidate taking over. There has been talk of Johnson, Burnham, Purnell and both Milibands but I don’t recall anyone advocating any female candidate for the leadership with any vigour. Harman herself would be a disaster, but can you imagine any of the current crop as PM? Smith? Blears? Flint? Beckett? Cooper? Jowell? Or, what about a quick parachute into a safe seat for Vadera?

Dismal as the list of male candidates is, the female list is risible. This may be because Gordon (and his machine) are genuinely sexists and have deliberately undermined his female Ministers on the basis of gender. This was essentially the charge made by Flint when she resigned – that female Ministers were treated as window dressing. But Flint’s comments lack any credibility.

First of all, the point of being in the cabinet is that you are supposed to be able to get a grip on a major department of State and stand up for yourself in cabinet. Now, it may be that she did fight like hell in cabinet and was ignored by an over-mighty number 10 but, if so, it is difficult to explain her eulogy to Brown’s leadership on the eve of her resignation.

It seems likelier that Brown has treated all his ministers as window dressing than that he singled the women out for specially rough treatment. It seems likely that Flint was undermined – but because that is what the PM’s people do – not because she is a woman.

So, Harman’s comments are dim-witted not because it is an unreasonable expectation that any of the top jobs should be done by a woman 50% of the time*. Her blunder is that, in order credibly to call for women at the top you need to have capable women to draw upon in the cabinet. People that you could imagine leading the country. And, at the moment at least, there is a terrible dearth of good women in the cabinet. At this moment then, her comments therefore imply tokenism (or conceivably self-aggrandisement). On the other hand, if there were a serious female candidate for the leadership in one of the “Great Offices of State” then it would look like Harman was calling for them to oppose Brown for the Leadership.

But perhaps I am wrong, perhaps Harman realises that the deputy leadership is not the second most important job. Possibly, she thinks it is a meaningless bauble of a job that anyone with half a brain can do and which can therefore safely be awarded to a female/minority/trade union affiliate as required by the exigencies of spin. If so, she not only craps on the cause of equality generally but treats the electorate as idiots.

* It seems to me that the deputy leadership is nowhere near as important a job as, say, Chancellor, Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary, two out of three of which have recently been done by women – but that is Labour’s confusion of Party and State for you and that is another topic

37. Mike Killingworth

[39] An excellent summary. Especially from a dead king (curiously, the one who first asked Labour to form a government).

38. Ivor Pimple

Harriet Harperson, the 21st century version of Michael Foot. Will make Labour totally unelectable.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Article: Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism http://bit.ly/uV6ES

  2. Joscelyn

    Harriet Harman “making a very reasonable suggestion sound callously anti-meritocratic and misandrist.” http://bit.ly/uV6ES (via @libcon)

  3. sunny hundal

    Laurie @PennyRed writes: ‘Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism’ – great piece: http://tr.im/valU

  4. Linda Spurdle

    RT @pickledpolitics RT @PennyRed writes: ‘Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism’ – great piece: http://tr.im/valU

  5. Liberal Conspiracy

    Article: Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism http://bit.ly/uV6ES

  6. Joscelyn

    Harriet Harman “making a very reasonable suggestion sound callously anti-meritocratic and misandrist.” http://bit.ly/uV6ES (via @libcon)

  7. Joscelyn

    Harriet Harman "making a very reasonable suggestion sound callously anti-meritocratic and misandrist." http://bit.ly/uV6ES (via @libcon)

  8. sunny hundal

    Laurie @PennyRed writes: ‘Harman’s foot-in-mouth feminism’ – great piece: http://tr.im/valU

  9. Social Liberal Forum » Daily Digest - August 2nd:

    […]   3. Laurie Penny takes issue with Harriet Harman’s ‘foot-in-mouth feminism’ on Liberal Conspiracy….   4. While Yvonne Roberts says Harman ght to challenge the ‘boys club’ in […]





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