A very strange and sad thing has happened to the cause of women’s rights. Rather than continuing to drive at concrete and urgent issues – domestic and sexual violence; pay discrimination; unfair parenting expectations, dramatically fewer women than men in top jobs – those invoking the F-word have veered off the road onto a cul de sac littered with “empowering” slogans and cutesy logos over substance. Preferably slogans and logos they can wear on a t-shirt.
Last week was deeply depressing on this score. Hillary Clinton, once a genuine powerhouse, is a woman I have previously defended and admired for being so experienced, skilled, bright and tough; so committed to statecraft and politics. Now she seems to have lost the feminist plot entirely. Her bewilderingly babyish-sounding new book, co-written with her daughter and fellow feminist icon hopeful Chelsea, is called *The Book of Gusty Women* - a collection of more than 100 stories of women overlooked by history.
Worse even than its title is what it reveals about its authors’ understanding of “gutsy” and “inspiring” womanhood. Margaret Thatcher – the woman whose dynamite trio of gutsiness, power and influence are un-matched by any other female figure in Western history – has not been included. This was not an oversight caused by overzealous Americanism. It was a decision explained by Mrs Clinton last week on BBC Radio Five Live with almost laughable righteousness. So righteous, yet so, so wrongteous!
Mrs Clinton allowed that Thatcher was “gutsy”, but clarified that “she doesn’t fit the other part of the definition in our opinion, which is really knocking down barriers for others and trying to make a positive difference…I think the record is mixed with her.” Oh dear. Poor Mrs Thatcher. She was simply too busy saving British sovereignty, winning wars, yanking us into the modern era, overhauling our economic framework and making the country prosperous – all while enduring endemic sexism – to simper smugly about “making a positive difference”.
She was too busy being a powerful women to go on (and on) about empowering women. With her example, Thatcher inspired a whole generation of women to be ambitious and to scale new heights. Where she failed was in not packaging this “message” with cute pictograms and sticking it on t-shirts. Nor did Mrs Clinton provide ball-busting reassurance with her insistence that the “gutsiest” personal thing she has ever done was… staying with Bill after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Her current brand of watery feminism may be obsessed with the idea of “really knocking down barriers for others”, but it is also regressive in singling out for celebration her achievements in hearth and home. This, after all, was the very sphere feminism struggled to get women out of. Yet this is Clinton’s proudest battleground.
Mrs Clinton is, of course, only trying to fit in. When former first lady Michelle Obama published her global bestseller *Becoming* last year, she entrenched this new style of cringey girl-power masquerading as adult feminism. Throughout the course of her suave, well-groomed first ladyship I felt keen disappointment. She seemed so focused on virtuous motherhood and wifedom.
*Becoming* enshrined this, tacking on for good measure a raft of mugs, hoodies and reusable water bottles piping out its “empowering” message - though quite what that is, I couldn’t quite tell you. In Blighty, this taste for cutesiness over substance has signalled a new era of pseudo-feminism among our top women, too. I felt ill last week when I saw a picture of Jo Swinson in a boxing ring, wielding mits, with a t-shirt that read: ‘Girly swot’. Filmed at Total Boxer in Crouch End, north London, a centre that trains young people to deter them from joining gangs, Swinson proudly stated that she wanted to “reclaim” the term.
‘Girly swot’? Really? Imagine Lady Thatcher indulging in such fatuousness in the run-up to the most important election of the century. In fact, a cheekily sloganned t-shirt wasn’t enough for the Liberal Democrat leader, on top of which she sported a giant spider brooch that has become a symbol of swashbuckling womanhood after Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale wore it while delivering her judgement on the prorogation of parliament.
Even Amber Rudd, arguably one of the toughest and most capable women in government until she resigned a few weeks back, is not immune from this depressing circle of affectation. Rudd was pictured with her daughter, Flora Gill, sporting Hale-inspired spider t-shirts on Halloween. “When you have the brilliant idea to wear your Lady Hale t-shirt to Parliament and your mum decides to copy you,” tweeted Gill. Welcome to the new feminism.
The sad irony of all this is that those rebranding feminism as a self-aggrandising, self-reverential sequence of merchandise and meaningless bon mots are those who have actually benefited most from the battle – or helped fight it. Hillary Clinton used to be a true warrior. It’s a shame that in her haste to genuflect to the new buzz words, that even she seems to have lost sight of what true female grit and guts really are.