“Try not to think about being a woman” is Claire Fox’s immediate response when I ask her for tips about being a woman in politics.
Scourge of both right and left wing illiberalism and famed as the free-speech defending, liberty loving contrarian panellist on Radio 4’s Moral Maze with regular appearances on BBC’s Question Time and Any Questions, Claire Fox is a physically petite woman with big ideas.
Claire’s day job is not as media punditry (engaging and provocative though she is) but directing the work of the Institute of Ideas, a think tank that champions debate and discussion with no issue out of bounds. The Institute of Ideas’ tiny office on the edge of the city – Claire set up the Institute over 15 years ago to expand the boundaries of public debate – is a higgle piggle of posters, boxes, books and digital equipment. The small team is preparing for the Battle of Ideas festival of debates and discussions that will take place at the London’s Barbican in less than a month’s time. Over ten years’ old and with over 2000 people regularly attending, the festival’s success is testament to Claire’s conviction in public debate and politics.
Claire’s second tip for women in politics is “never special plead for consideration or inclusion because you are a woman – you need to fight your corner with what you say not who you are.” As anyone who has seen Claire in political debate will testify, the woman puts her money where her mouth is and defies expectations. “When I started to speak publicly and politically and began to appear on panels, I got treated as not part of the boys’ club. Before a debate, there was an attitude of ‘Who is she? She’s nobody’. But that was before I opened my mouth. After the discussion, when I’d spoken and made my argument, there was a different approach. When you say what you want to say with thought and conviction, they’ll notice you and forget you’re a woman, which is what you want.”
Claire is suspicious of a new breed of feminist discourse that emphasises “special womanly insights and attributes” above and beyond the political argument at hand, a pigeon-holing that Claire “has fought all my life to get away from.”
But is it as easy for a woman to have political influence as simply opening her mouth and saying what she thinks? Why aren’t there more women in politics, a debate the recent furore over the make-up of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet once more brought to the fore? As Claire herself says “It is undoubtedly the case that you would anticipate that the top jobs in any organisation or any political party would be split approximately 50/50, wouldn’t you? I don’t think women are inferior”.
But Claire also thinks that the causes are more complex than straightforward sexism.
“For many complicated reasons, women are not always prepared to take the top jobs. Or there aren’t enough women to be considered for those jobs on a meritocratic basis. It’s certainly not explicit sexism – if you go to any leading organisation, from FTSE 100 firms to political parties, people are bending over backwards to get women involved at senior levels. But women themselves, despite unprecedented opportunities, don’t seem to want to put themselves forward. Why? One reason is having children and the fact that the childcare role still predominantly falls to the woman – despite all the lip-service to shared childcare and responsibility, that’s still true. Women take career breaks for children and that inevitably affects their career progression. Or your priorities may simply be different as a woman when you have children.”
Claire will not be the first commentator who has cited children as a reason women do not climb as high professionally or politically as men. But Claire also points the finger at new feminist values.
“One of the things that seems to have emerged from this new feminised culture is that it has become acceptable – even expected – for independent, potentially high-flying, women to say ‘I have softer skills, I’m a team player.’ But ironically if you take this stance and still want to be a great leader of our times, you don’t develop the skills you need to be that leader – the ruthlessness that is part of the deal in politics, the sharp-elbows, the competitiveness. If you emphasise empathy and feelings as a woman in politics you risk being overshadowed by the rational, articulate person who promotes a political perspective and wins people over to their argument while you’re too busy ‘feeling it’ in the background. There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy going on here.”
This lack of thought-out and argued-for politics is a case in point for Claire when she considers the Women’s Equality party. “I think they’re fairly harmless but I don’t know what they are about. They seem to be a pressure group for women to be equal. Which is fine, But I don’t know what their policies are. Being for women’s equality is not radical in and of itself.”
Where Claire did see women involved in hard-fought politics recently was the Labour leadership contest, in spite of the kerfuffle around the gender composition of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Claire saw two strong people who happen to be female run for leader and put their political opinions and opposition to Corbyn on the line. The spotlight was on their politics, not their gender.
“I thought it was fascinating, it really dawned on me how irrelevant gender was. Corbyn actually stood against and heavily defeated too very opinionated, strong women. But they had different politics to him. It was the politics that mattered in the end. He could have said he wanted them in the shadow cabinet. But why would he do that? They obviously disagreed enormously. And that’s the danger of saying you want women per se – you end up ignoring what it is an individual woman will contribute, which is their politics. And to Corbyn’s credit, he did not compromise his political principles to satisfy gender equality for the sake of it. But he did play the tick boxing game about the number of overall women in his shadow cabinet. And once you play that tick boxing game, you can never win. As soon as he did that, everyone said ‘But they haven’t got the top jobs.’ Then what? Should he step down as leader because he’s a man? It becomes a permanent state of complaint.”
Claire does acknowledge that whether or not a woman has children has played – and still does play – a part in their active political involvement. This is something she knows from her own experience.
“When I was first involved in politics having children would have meant I was less active – I was a full-blown politico, my passion was politics. And I watched my political peers having children and the women taking a backseat, even though they were ardent radicals, with a complete belief in women’s liberation and progressive politics. I think my generation choose not to have children for as long as we wanted to be at the cutting-edge of politics. Things have changed in terms of attitude. If I was young now, I wouldn’t consider having children as a barrier to being engaged politically, from a psychological perspective and in term of expectations. But there are still practical barriers – having children is a huge commitment and responsibility for life. It seems, to me at least, that women still take on the chief responsibility for children. Of course men take on some of that responsibility but it’s different. All the anecdotes about who the school phones are true. Women shoulder the main burden of childcare.”
At the same time, Claire is wary of over-emphasising the maternal and again thinks that contemporary discourse around feminine virtues may actually be limiting women, prescribing not only what it means to be a fulfilled woman but what it means to be maternal.
“Contemporary feminism has over-emphasised the maternal role. There have this weird crisis and discussion – ‘Are we leaving it too late? Are we putting careers before having children? Can we have it all?’ The message is, it’s a major loss if you don’t have children. Somehow we are saying this is how you fulfil yourself as a women. It’s different from when my mother was being told this. That was old-fashioned sexism. But what has crept into contemporary feminist discussion is that you aren’t fully a women unless you’re a mother. That’s disconcerting because it’s nonsense.”
This doesn’t mean Claire isn’t sensitive to what it means to be a mother and the special bond between a mother and child.
“You’re obviously missing out on a big human relationship. It’s one of the most important and intimate relationships of humanity. Just like falling in love is. So much of great literature is about those things – falling in love or parents’ relationships with their children. I get it”.
“But there are all sorts of things that life can’t offer everyone. You could say ‘how could you live your life without climbing Mount Everest or travelling the world?’ There are huge experiences we don’t all have. Some people will say ‘When I lost my mother when I was young, it changed my life.’ Well, I don’t have that experience because my mother is still with me. We don’t all have the same life experiences all at the same time. Some major experiences we won’t have at all.”
There is a maternal side to her in action, particularly towards the young people she comes into contact with politically, many of whom fervently disagree with her but retain great admiration and fondness for her. From big political ideas to small thoughtfulness – she is famed for mammoth gift wrapping sessions at Christmas – she has, to use her own words, a ‘mother-hen’ side.
“I do have something that people would call maternal feelings. I accumulate people. In my work, in the way I organise things, I do express something akin to the maternal, particularly working with young people. I keep my eye on them. I have lots of relationships which are not dissimilar – though not as intimate – as a mother-child relationship. You don’t have to be a Freudian psychoanalyst to work out something is going on there. I’m like that with my step-daughter and niece and nephew as well. Being a grown up, social person means taking responsibility for society and being childfree doesn’t mean adopting some misanthropic, anti-child position. We should all be as excited and as enthusiastic about the prospects for the next generation as any parent.”
But whatever the maternal feelings or excitement or enthusiasm for the next generation, Claire has never been one to fight shy form difficult and controversial political issues. She has organised a strand of debates at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival to tackle “some of the problems of contemporary feminism”. Discussions to get you hot, bothered and fighting to make a point from the floor include ‘Campus Wars: safe or sanitised’ (an issue covered on tlfw), ‘The Personal if Political: is identity politics eating itself?’, ‘Rape culture: myth or menace?’, ‘Does pink really stink? The gender-neutral parenting debate’ and ‘The battle over breasts.’ Claire knows from experience that feminism today is a hot topic. A keynote debate on feminism at the Battle of Ideas last year “was packed to the rafters.” And it was a difficult discussion. “It was surprisingly hard to argue a rational case for a meritocratic approach to women”. Ever the political trooper, Claire does not give up that easy. “So I decided to have a second bash at it this year. Come along and join in the arguments because there will be some.”
Every year at the Barbican Centre in London, hundreds of speakers from home and abroad, from all disciplines and viewpoints, along with over 2,500 vocal attendees, gather to ‘shape the future through debate’ over one weekend. No topics are off limits; this year the programme will debate everything from War & Peace to Life & Death; modernising Shakespeare to the Sharing Economy; ‘rape culture’ to racism on film; from free-range kids to free-speech wars.