UK: 'Jobs are a feminist issue. So are legal aid, tax and pensions'


It feels as if, for 20 years, the only argument occurring about feminism has been whether or not it has a point – hadn't its purpose already been served, all its battles won? And when young women eschew feminism, thinking it to describe an uneven temper and hairy armpits, does it have any reliable meaning or future?

Luckily, with the obvious proviso that this is also very unlucky for women, this argument has been thoroughly scotched since the coalition government came to power. Women are hardest hit by the austerity drive and always the losers whenever there's a surge of social conservatism.

In the light of these grim times, there has been a resurgence of activism (a UK Feminista conference last weekend with 1,100 attendees; a Fawcett Society day of action on Saturday; a TUC conference yesterday, launching the Women and Cuts toolkit).

While certain government members might prefer to ignore all this, the coalition generally is terrified of the perception that they don't care about women – as signalled by an asinine memo from No 10 strategists about appealing to women which was leaked in September, and this week's announcement that David Cameron is to appoint a special adviser to vet every policy for its impact on women. She could save time (I have already bet the scalp of my firstborn that it will be a she) by simply consulting that TUC toolkit, but I doubt that she will.

Just as an aside, I'm annoyed now by all the breath I wasted these last two decades, arguing about whether feminism was worthwhile. There will always be milquetoasts on the sidelines, calling feminism irrelevant while availing themselves blithely of the rights it fights for; the correct answer should have been a sprightly, "good luck to you, sister, you're the one who has to live with yourself".

But now feminism has been deemed relevant, more interesting debates have sprung up within it. The question arose last weekend: would things be so bad for women if there were better female representation in the government? The vote was split – on one side, a conviction that this is the problem in public life: it's overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and white, and on that fact can be blamed all the recklessness, thoughtlessness and shortsightedness that lies behind every crisis you can name.

I dislike any argument that seeks essential differences between the sexes to explain why one is useless and the other great. It's like pulling a knife on a burglar; you can never be sure he's not going to use it on you. But here I dislike it specifically, because imagine if things were different: if there were 10 Nadine Dorrieses and 100 Lynne Featherstones. It wouldn't help.

Look at the policy areas put forward by the coalition and how they affect women. Cuts to legal aid disproportionately hit women because so much of it relates to family cases, and women are predominantly the party needing financial assistance (it's crazy, isn't it – anyone would think motherhood interfered with your earning potential).

Cuts to public sector jobs hit women hardest because 40% of women work in the public sector, against 11% of men. Any move towards commissioning services from the private sector, instead of providing them in the public sector, will affect women because the pay gap is much higher in the private sector. Part-time workers are paid much less in the private sector and are, predominantly, women.

Cuts to the childcare element of working family tax credit hit women because they're more likely to be the second earner, and already 25% of mothers in the lowest quintile have had to give up work because their earnings don't justify their childcare. Today's unemployment figures showed the number of women out of work to have hit a 23-year high, and no amount of rebranding ("she's not unemployed, she's a stay-at-home mum") changes that.

Cuts to teachers' pensions hit women because women are more likely to be teachers. The bizarre suggestion from the Department for Work and Pensions to charge lone parents for chasing the absent parent for maintenance would hit women because 92% of lone parents are women. The end of the EMA affects women more than men because it was of particular importance to teenage mothers. And I don't even have time to explain why housing benefit cuts and the universal credit will disproportionately hit women, nor how the crisis in midwifery is somewhat worse for women, nor the long-term effects of the closure of the Care to Learn scheme.

I don't believe the government hates women. This is simply what the landscape looks like when you recast "social security" as "benefit" and refute the underlying principle that we will all, at points in our lives, be fiscally unproductive and it's the work of society to carry us. This is what it looks like when you contract public services out to the lowest bidder. This is what it looks like when you roll back the rights of the employee, in the workplace, to "boost industry".

There are arguments to be had about whether women are "drawn" to the public services and caring professions or nudged into them, and whether they want to take on most of the childcare or are forced to, but those are arguments we can have another time. Someone needs to care: someone needs to nurse, teach, and look after children and the elderly; someone needs to stick around when a marriage breaks down. And while those people are needed, the rest of us have to fight to make sure they don't pay for their efforts with poverty. Female representation in parliament is the least of our worries; these looming inequalities will be solved by ideas, not by female apparatus.

By Zoe Williams