Friday, 5 February 2010

The message of the Townswomen's Guild should be rejected

In yesterday's Daily Mail, a woman called Sue Smith wrote an article whose headline began with the words "a manifesto for women." I was under no illusions that the Mail had embraced feminism, as I know the paper's value-base lies with a largely-imagined middle class from over two centuries ago, but it did grab my attention long enough for me to continue reading. The writer, it emerges, is "chairman" of something called the Townswomen's Guild.

According to their website;
The Suffragettes who had battled so vigorously for this right had grabbed enough headlines to mark themselves down in the history books.

Chaining themselves to railings, going on hunger strikes - these women were determined to draw attention to the campaign for full voting rights for women.

But alongside them, there were many other women fighting for the vote in quieter, constitutional ways - these were the Suffragists.

With a new found freedom, these women led by Eva Hubback and Margery Corbett Ashby saw the need to create an organisation aimed at ordinary women living in the nation's towns and cities; an idea that led to the Townswomen's Guilds movement.

Today, Townswomen's Guilds remains one of Britain's leading women's groups.
I've never heard of them before. And their "express aim of educating women about good citizenship" suggests that most feminists won't have either. That their "manifesto" was being published in the Mail, and that noted reactionary Richard Littlejohn offers Smith praise by announcing that "any woman unashamed to call herself 'chairman' rather than the ghastly 'chair' gets my vote," instantly trashes their credentials on "involvement with radical local, national and global concerns" which the organisation supposedly "prides itself on."

Then there is this;
In the poll [for the Guild's magazine, Townswoman], 95 per cent agreed that the current levels of immigration will cause the country to lose its identity while nine in ten were concerned about the population potentially reaching 70 million.

A similar proportion said they were concerned about the pressure on public services and 94 per cent said current levels were putting a strain on community relations.

Some 50 per cent wanted no net migration, the balance between numbers coming in to the UK and those leaving, while 29 per cent wanted no immigration at all.
I have dealt with both "the myth of 70 million" and the so-called "demographic timebomb" previously. Here, my concern is the Townswomen's Guild and what they pertain to be. The manifesto on offer only cements the fact that this is not a radical or even a reformist women's rights organisation. It is a social organisation for middle class conservatives who happen to be women. Every paragraph drips with an invective which prioritises "tradition" and "values" over genuine equality and social progress. I, too, "would like to see a network of refuges set up" for the victims of domestic violence, and think that "the provision across Britain is very patchy." But what else is on offer?

The idea of "keep[ing] families together" revolves around visiting rights for fathers and grandparents. Struggling single parents, especially the single mothers continually demonised by the media, do not come onto the agenda. Nor do the government's continual compromises on flexible working time for parents and increased maternity and paternity leave. Vague platitudes and values take the place of serious analysis of the true cause of familial breakdown in a capitalist system.
As TUC general secretary Brendan Barber points out;
Business lobby groups have opposed every new family-friendly right, from flexible working to extended maternity pay. But in reality these changes have hugely benefitted millions of families and have had no damaging effect on businesses.
Smith writes with ire how "the closure of so many post offices (an estimated 8,000 have been shut in the past ten years) is nothing short of a disaster, leading to the disintegration of communities." She may be right, but this is but a symptom. That working class intellectual culture has utterly disintegrated as the rich-poor gap has widened and social mobility has stagnated, the individualism fostered by the economic system we toil under tearing apart our communities. If Smith wishes to get to the heart of why "vital community links are disappearing," she will have to look beyond just the disappearence of Post Offices.
Likewise, banning mixed-sex wards does not remove the decline of the NHS caused by creeping privatisation and outsourcing. Making people clean up their local area is a redundant exercise as that local area is overcome by poverty and we face a return to Victorian era inequality. "Cutting up our credit cards" is not an economic solution, but a shallow pretence that systematic consumption and excess can be blamed upon individual materialism rather than the other way around.
Conservative waffle about "parental responsibility" and "giv[ing] teachers respect" is without meaning as long as we still think of children as a commodity to be controlled. I have written in depth for Property is Theft how "raising children in a libertarian manner allows them to develop not just their own individuality, but also a sense of morality and justice not based on coercion."
Most obscene of all is Smith's casual dismissal of the ongoing struggle for women's equality in the workplace. "We all know about the so-called career glass ceiling and women having to work twice as hard as men to progress in the workplace," dismissing it out of hand in a single sentence. She warns that "it's important to remember that women who choose to stay at home are not inferior to career women," even though nobody has ever suggested otherwise. Thus, without any comment on the fact that both business and the welfare system deem it a hindrance without economic worth, we are told that "I think it's a jolly sight harder looking after children at home than going out to work."
"A jolly sight harder." This is what the "chairman" of Britain's second biggest women's group has to offer whilst Global Women's Strike are rallying with passion against the fact that "mothers make the world go round, but we get neither recognition nor resources, only blame when things go wrong." Sue Smith, and her Townswomen's Guild, do not represent the rights or interests of women. Had there been no radicals "chaining themselves to railings, going on hunger strikes," women would not have the vote today. The Guild's  "quieter, constitutional ways" represent a creeping reaction that would co-opt the still-ongoing battle that feminists face for the interests of the state. As the struggle goes on, this point has to be made.
No manifesto for Middle England can ever be a manifesto for women.