In the last weekend of November, Sophie Walker took to the stage at the Women's Equality Party's first conference to make her leader's speech and, within a few minutes, began weeping. She cried as she recounted the difficulties of being a single parent trying to access services for her autistic daughter: "Finding out that no one was interested, no one cared, no one welcomed her as person who lived differently."
This wasn't just a stray tear, brushed away. Walker (pictured above) seemed to be struggling to go on. The conference held its breath. I gripped the sides of my chair in a mixture of sympathy and embarrassment, thinking this wasn't going to go down well in the media, that she would be mocked for feebleness; what kind of leader, faced with an audience of hundreds, stands in front of them and cries at life's defeats?
It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that this had been one of the most significant, and, yes, persuasive moments of the entire event. Walker could hardly have made her point – that her daughter's diagnosis had punctured her own privilege as a white, university-educated journalist (and tall and beautiful, which she did not say but which is nevertheless probably relevant) – more tellingly. Her tears powerfully conveyed her devastation at feeling her child was destined, as she put it, either to be invisible or to be exposed, and the helplessness this induced.
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The Women's Equality party conference was awash with talk about women 'doing politics differently'. The phrase was trotted out repeatedly, although it wasn't entirely clear what it actually meant. This week, as hundreds of thousands of women prepare to march on Washington on Saturday following the inauguration of Donald Trump (with marches in 200 other US cities and more than 50 others worldwide, including across the UK and in London, where Sophie Walker will be one of the speakers) this seems a good moment to try to pin down whether there is anything new about 21st-century women's activism and, if so, what it is.
There are two ways in which women might potentially 'do politics differently': policy, and practice. As far as the former is concerned, the Women's Equality party is promoting broad areas of policy capable of attracting women from across the traditional political spectrum, including closing the gender pay gap, subsidising childcare, ending violence against women, and equal representation in business, politics and the media. Detail and delivery would be more fraught, but, for now, these are things most women can get behind. Both Nicky Morgan, former Conservative Education Secretary, and Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats, spoke at the conference.
It is in its practice, though, that women's activism has real potential to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be political.
Among the variety of reasons for Brexit and Trump, rage was right up there. Emotion is back in fashion. The Brexiters and Trump eschewed rational arguments in favour of pleas to feeling. Trump is President of Emotions. (Sad!) Yet we are ill-equipped to understand this outbreak of feeling, as Pankaj Mishra argues in his forthcoming book, The Age of Anger, because our dominant intellectual concepts are incapable of comprehending the role of emotion in politics.
Since the Enlightenment, Mishra argues, our political thinking has been ever more tightly gripped by materialist, mechanistic premises – for example by the idea that "humans are essentially rational and motivated by the pursuit of their own interests; that they principally act to maximise personal happiness, rather than on the basis of fear, anger and resentment." Homo economicus, he says, "views the market as the ideal form of human interaction and venerates technological progress and the growth of GDP. All of this is part of the rigid contemporary belief that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore does not." There is no room in this world view for more complex motivations: vanity, say, or the fear of humiliation.
Women's activism might bring a different sensibility to politics, one that acknowledges that emotions are inevitable, messy – and necessary
How, then, to comprehend, let alone articulate, the vulnerability, the shame, the loss of identity created by inequality, job losses and purposeless communities? The roiling emotions engendered by capitalism's failure to confer the promised general prosperity cannot be understood when emotion is a thing men are meant to contain, then repudiate. Strongmen leaders do not stand in front of their political parties and weep about their daughters. That sort of thing is for losers. Male valour is about not showing emotional distress. (This is very deeply embedded in our culture: "Thy tears are womanish," Shakespeare's Friar Lawrence scolds Romeo, although Romeo has every right to be upset, because he has just killed a man, who was Juliet's cousin.)
Emotion is stigmatised as belonging to lesser, non-normative groups. Women are hysterical. Black men are hypersexual. Homosexuals are unreliably camp. There is no option for the would-be winners, competing to maximise their self-interest, to respond to injury by saying, "Please, that's painful!" – still less by weeping.
The emotion is there, nevertheless, metastasising. Since men without the means to express vulnerability cannot mourn frankly their loss of identity as a provider (let alone their disorientation when other groups threaten to undermine their unearned sense of superiority), injured masculinity must disguise itself in images of strength, mastery, honour. Trump himself is a personification of this phenomenon, as Laurie Penny has observed: "At once an emblem of violent, impenetrable masculinity – the nasally-rigid, iron-hearted business Svengali determined to slap America until it stops snivelling – and a byword for hysterical sensitivity, a wailing man-baby with a hair-trigger temper."
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All this emotion-with-nowhere-to-go was seized on by the Trump and Brexit campaigns. They found a way to channel it, allowing electorates to associate themselves with winning, to bray 'losers' at people they didn't like. It turned out not to matter very much what they were winning at or where it took them. Getting Trump into the White House, like Brexit, was an end in itself, a way of displacing pain, therapeutic.
It was also deeply reactionary. The hideous inequalities of global capitalism being what they are, it is hard for the 99 per cent to conceive of themselves becoming winners as things stand – so Trump and Brexit offered instead a return to fantasies of the past. The iconography of Brexit has its roots in Britain's resistance to the Nazis (conveniently overlooking small things like imperial reach and American intervention), while the Trump campaign's "make America great again" offered still more explicit nostalgia for a time when the nation had a common destiny, with white men front and centre.
What women's activism might bring to politics is a different sensibility, one that acknowledges that emotions are inevitable, messy – and necessary. There is a hole in politics where opposition used to be and social democracy used to flourish. That is largely because rational arguments, facts, expertise, seem to bear too little relation to the way that many people feel about the world. The liberals' arguments seem to be conducted in a kind of parallel universe, of interest only to those who thrive there. When called to articulate a vision for Britain in Europe, the best Remainers could manage was an abstract account of financial penalties if the electorate didn't do as it was told – which, since it never connected, was easily dismissed as 'Project Fear'.
People have not, in fact, lost interest in truth. But first and foremost, they know the truth of their emotional relationship to the world. Liberals and social democrats currently have no way of addressing this. A lot of the time, they appear to be talking gobbledygook.
The populist right has found an emotive way to engage electorates by channelling their feelings, often displacing them onto someone else in the process. If you cannot look at yourself in the mirror – because anxiousness makes you feel weak and to be weak is to be a failed human being – you are prey to finding someone else to blame for your loss of dignity. In a world of competition, the only way to self-esteem is to be a winner. And someone else must therefore become the loser.
Had the Enlightenment developed out of the vision of Montaigne or Shakespeare it would have made more room for kindness, and given us a more nuanced account of human experience
There is an alternative: a politics that begins with the notion that emotions do not have to be repressed or deformed into bigotry and abuse. An understanding of feelings that does not equate weakness with shame, and compassion with maladaptive weakness, is much more likely to suggest solutions than one that denies our emotional lives, most of what makes us human.
When people admit to their emotions, they call for empathy; they can galvanise action. "And the government's name for a single mother raising two children and caring for her elderly father?" Sophie Walker asked, in her conference speech, promptly supplying the (clearly absurd) answer: 'Economically inactive'. Walker's single mother is of no importance in the Trump/Farage fantasy land of winning, greatness, the deal, othering the outsider. The unpaid work of caring is about love; it entails vulnerability, which immediately makes it suspect in a world of winning and losing, in which the only permissible emotions are triumph and mocking schadenfreude.
The prevailing political mood of the moment is anxiety. "To live a modern life anywhere in the world today," Mark Lilla wrote recently in the New York Times, "subject to perpetual social and technological transformation, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution. Anxiety in the face of this process is now a universal experience, which is why reactionary ideas attract adherents around the world who share little except their sense of historical betrayal."
When liberals make pious noises about understanding the anxiety of constituents who have turned away from them, their solution often seems to entail taking on some of the bigotry. You don't have to look very far to find those who believe that feminism is inadequate to the task of humanising politics because it is, in fact, part of the problem. Lilla, in another piece in the New York Times, and Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian, have each argued that the policing of language and behaviour – which some call courtesy – has provoked a backlash and so must bear some of the blame for populism. The logical extension of this argument is that feminists, along with Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activists and other assorted 'snowflakes', need to take a step back and think about just how much damage they're doing.
A new politics that begins with the notion that emotions do not have to be repressed or deformed into bigotry and abuse
The problem is that this assumes white men's lives are neutral territory around which the common interest can coalesce. It is, in other words, male identity politics. "There has been a massive backlash by white men," Sophie Walker told me, at the WE party headquarters in Bermondsey, a few weeks after the conference speech. "We are living out the identity politics of the straight white man right now."
If we are not to face a breakdown to essentialist tribal identities of gender and race, people have to find a way of articulating feelings of distress in a way that doesn't humiliate them. If men cannot face their anxiety, it will be denied, and then absolutely nothing will be done to alleviate it; there will be a privatisation of misery. There are structural reasons for the explosion of mental health disorders in advanced economies, for the opiate addiction in the rustbelt, the epidemic of distress among young people, other sorts of self-harm. But if we can't acknowledge the underlying dread and helplessness that people experience in the face of a world controlled by global finance capital and incomprehensible algorithms, individuals will continue to be stigmatised as failing. Either you will be a winner, an entrepreneurial individual competing freely in the market, deflecting your distress by manning up, lashing out; or your inchoate feelings of desperation will be – sorry – your problem, mate.
A female sensibility in politics is not, it probably needs saying, antithetical to reason, even though feeling and reason are often posited as opposites. Plato contrasted the wild horse of passion and the wise charioteer of reason (his point being, of course, that they needed each other). Jane Austen would have had no plots without the frequent difficulty human beings have in accommodating desire and wisdom: success, as she repeatedly shows, lies in the reconciliation of sense and sensibility. Such an accommodation requires self-examination, generosity of spirit, fidelity to self, and hard thinking. But first and foremost, it takes an honesty about feeling.
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I used to get mildly irritated when feminists focused too hard on female representation, when there seemed so many other pressing things to talk about, as if vaginas alone made a difference. And it is true that there is a glass-ceiling feminism that takes little heed of women for whom race, class, disability and/or sexuality intersect to intensify and redouble gender discrimination. But sheer numbers of women do make a difference. Nicky Morgan notes that women in parliament are more inclined to collaborate across party than men. Sal Brinton, who has had a lifetime of being a lone woman on decision-making bodies, says that when women get to 40 per cent in a meeting or on a board, the language changes. There's a different way of conducting business, a different sense of how to move things on. In a hall overwhelmingly dominated by women, it is possible for a leader to cry and everyone to be on her side. For no one to think (after a moment of adjustment from unreconstructed be-more-like-a-man feminists like me) that you're weak.
Over the coming months and years, progressives are going to have to grapple with what kind of emotional appeal they can make beyond the populists' exploitative deformation of feeling. The task will be to retrieve emotion from its current co-option into a minatory, ultimately self-defeating way of looking at the world.
Women are not (of course) alone in identifying the need for soul in politics. Robert Musil and Stephen Toulmin, among others, have identified that there was a highly rationalistic and scientific turn in Enlightenment thinking after Descartes and Newton. Had the Enlightenment developed instead out of the vision of Montaigne, or Shakespeare, the thinking goes, it would have made more room for kindness, and would have given us a fuller, more complex and nuanced account of human experience. In the current destabilised times, people are returning to their ideas.
Perhaps women's activism can give us all a way into reconnecting with a different, more generous apprehension of the Enlightenment. By caring about caring, for example – not as an abstract problem that acts as a brake on the economy, but because caring is about love, family, community, humanity. By reminding men that it is possible to acknowledge pain and survive, and then get stronger. As the political ground shifts under our feet and old allegiances and responses turn out to be no use to us, we are going to need to find a different language of politics. And the language of women is where we should start.