Sisterhood is not dead. It is alive and kicking and living in Labour.

by Ray Filar

As a relatively new Labour party member, attending the annual women’s conference – celebrating the centenary of international women’s day – was a first insider’s foray into the challenges discussed by women in party politics. The day seemed to structure itself: talks could hardly do anything other than concentrate on the systematic attack on women that is Tory-Lib Dem policy, and women’s continued under-representation in government and politics. It doesn’t take much to connect these two themes. More surprising, though, was an explicit focus on sisterhood. Throughout the day the speakers repeatedly entreated the audience as “sisters” to support pro-women initiatives. Though there was little open reference to feminism and feminists, barely a scratch on the surface of the conference was needed to reveal the underlying message: sisterhood is still powerful.

This is big news because even recently it hasn’t seemed that way. Only two years ago, Harriet Harman proposed a policy at the time so revolutionary, so unthinkable, that a riotous queue (with John Prescott at the head) formed, its sole purpose to decry her suggestion as self-serving nonsense. What was the proposal? Only this: that never again should Labour leadership be a male-only province. Rather, the leadership should always be comprised of one man, one woman, whether this be a male leader and female deputy leader, or vice versa.

Of course, Harman is no stranger to vitriolic demonisation from all branches of the media. When, during her time as acting leader, she suggested that we, you know, stop skirting around the endemic problem of domestic violence  and start educating children about relationships, booming derision and shouts of “man hater”! echoed from Parliament Square to Aberdeen. This, after all, is only Britain’s currently longest continuously serving female MP, who, arguably, has done the most of anyone in Parliament to push gender equality policy in Britain over the last twenty years. Why should anybody take her seriously?

On Saturday, it seemed that, at least within the women’s side of the party, the side of the party, after all, on which feminist policy most directly impacts, the support for a full and active sisterhood is there. This was reflected most obviously in multiple paeans to Harman’s work, with the other speakers (most of whom have much to be congratulated on themselves) each taking the time to express their support for Harman and her dedication to gender equality.

During her speech, Harman made clear that she has not changed her mind on male-only leaderships, and the audience nodded agreement. Another of her proposals was for a senior position for a women’s organiser. It wasn’t entirely obvious whether this would comprise an additional women’s (as opposed to the broader “equalities”) minister position, or an official recognition at a high level of a Labour women’s leader, or a bit of both. Either way, seven hundred Labour women (and the few men present) were overwhelmingly supportive.

In previous years, considerable numbers of feminists, both female and male, argued that continued demonstrations of female merit and changing cultural attitudes are all that is needed to create a steady increase of women in ministerial positions. The predicted increase has not occurred. It is worth bearing in mind that it is positive discrimination that has enabled 31% female Labour MPs, more than all of the other parties put together. Whatever past reservations may have been expressed about all-women shortlists and other kinds of quotas, there was a feeling in Saturday’s audience that the bluntest tool is better than no tool at all.

It seemed that Ed Miliband’s Labour wants to be seen to be really doing something to tackle the continuing under-representation of women in government politics, and that the call out to women as sisters was intended to stimulate a renewed focus on women’s power as a group, however differentiated by race, class, sexuality, or ability.

How is the political will to increase women’s representation in politics created? Last Saturday, the answer was clear and resounding. It will be the action of women themselves that finally succeeds in transforming the attitudes that still bar women from representative participation in government politics. The sisterhood is by no means dead, and more, unabashed, entreaty to the power of sisterhood is what it will take to create the kinds of political environments that at the conference had women lining up five to a mic to express their opinions. As Harman said in her opening address, “today’s unreasonableness is tomorrow’s justice and conventional wisdom”.

Ray Filar blogs here.

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One Response to “Sisterhood is not dead. It is alive and kicking and living in Labour.”

  1. Nev says:

    Excellent report, on a major theme, and beautifully written too.

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