Progressive politics at its best is a broad coalition designed to push society forward by making sure no one is left behind. To the benefit of women and other marginalized groups, it has fought for equal rights and treatment as well as causes that may only affect previously ignored sections of society. It is categorised by tolerance, equality, and a mutual respect between the different groups who participate in it. For some time, this has not always been the case. It is rare for a movement to be entirely united yet this is more problematic with deeper reaching effects than a simple political splinter – does the left have a sexism problem?
Labour MP (and phenomenal woman) Jess Phillips told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year that she thought “They [the left-wing men] are the worst, the actual worst” when asked if the British left or right wing was the more sexist. Her thought process is perfectly logical: it is better to be able to confront something head on than be constantly yet secretly undermined by it. A short scroll through her Twitter mentions suggests a second reason – the constant sexist abuse and rape threats she faces, often from those claiming to be Corbynistas. Phillips continued by saying “Men said they supported better female representation but, when it came to losing their own jobs, they would say, ‘Oh, you mean me? But I am so clever. I’ve got so much to offer the world’. They are literally the worst.”
This reference to affirmative action nods to a debate that is still ongoing amongst progressives – both in the UK and globally, and if female representatives hold the monopoly on truly representing the interests of us as women. Whatever the answers, male politicians should not silence women. Crucially, this includes progressives. This can be seen in how many commentators saw the more left wing but male candidates in the 2015 Labour leadership elections (Corbyn and Burnham) as the better choice for women than the actual women standing. The same point can be made about Sanders and Clinton in the US Democratic Primaries in 2016. This could be accidental, maybe left leaning men don’t set out to speak for women or instead of them. However, even assuming this is an accident, women have a right to call them out for it, and those called out should take note and change how they behave. Just because male left wing politicians claim to speak for women, they should not use this as an excuse to take the place of women speaking out.
It is perfectly understandable why many may see left wing male politicians’ policies as being better for women like us (and so more feminist) than those of often more centrist women. For example, Sander’s pledge for universal healthcare would have made reproductive healthcare (including contraception and abortion) easier to access for American woman – especially those on low incomes who currently struggle to afford it. This is a more active promise to improve the lives of women than Clinton’s vague statements on women’s issues that in reality amounted to little more than holding the line. It may seem like an easy decision about who to vote for but I would disagree. This is because Sanders did not set out to improve women’s access to such healthcare, rather the population as a whole, and so women were simply an afterthought. It took feminist commentators to point out this happy coincidence that boosted Sander’s feminist credentials and his polling stats. The same point can be made about Corbyn and his criticisms of austerity as it has affected women potentially more so than men. Yet, this example of intersectionality has been ignored by Corbyn so far who has preferred blanket criticisms instead. As we can see, championing left wing causes has often meant progressive men like Corbyn and Sanders stumble across the feminist solution rather than actively promoting it. I struggle to see how myself and other women being an afterthought shows us being represented, or the solutions to our problems being championed.
If left wing men can be accidental feminists, then they can also be accidental sexists. This is due to what psychologists call moral licensing. It happens when people behave badly if they have done something good before as they see the bad thing as being outweighed by the good thing. So, were I too have chocolate cake for dessert having just eaten a salad for my main course because I think I have earnt the cake, is an example of moral licensing. Politically, this is most commonly seen when self-identified progressives behave offensively. In a study by psychologists at Stanford University, those who voted for Obama in 2008 and were reminded of it were more likely to act in a racist manner than those who also voted for him but were not reminded. Social psychologist Dr Elizabeth Mullen believes that this also happens with left leaning men being sexist or misogynist too. She points to men like Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK who publicly expressed progressive views but are accused by multiple women of serious sexual assaults in private. Progressive politicians are also susceptible. This can be in the shape of sexual harassment and assaults by those on the left, like the recent accusations of senior officials in the Labour Party using their positions of power to sexually assault younger women activists that emerged due to #metoo. Or, the latent sexism that seems too seep into how some men on the left refer to women, whether that be Sanders frequently implying Clinton was shrill or Labour MP Clive Lewis telling a woman at a Momentum conference to ‘get on her knees’. Both in politics and in life, eating a salad does therefore not justify scoffing a chocolate cake as the salad does not reduce the harm of the chocolate cake.
My message is simple, be skeptical of just how feminist some male progressive politicians are. Their intentions may not be genuine, instead just treating feminist issues as a vote winner. There are many truly feminist male politicians, and most are found left of the political centre. This is not a criticism of them; instead, just take the feminism of all politicians regardless of gender or political leaning with a pinch of salt. If the left has a sexism problem, it will likely become apparent given the rise of left wing movements and candidates internationally. We should all be hopeful this will be a step in the right direction to improve the lives of all women and achieve feminist goals but only time will tell if this is to be the case, and how good its intentions will be.
Written by Sophie Butcher