After 100 International Women’s Days, real achievement still trumps leftist ideology

Nothing illustrates better the difference between political idealism and political realism than the campaign to advance women in power, now a century old. The idealists insist on universal principles, based on rights theory, which benefit all women equally. Realists grasp the point that gifted women, in actual office and able to exercise authority, do more to persuade the public of women’s fitness to rule than anything else.

Women’s rights campaigners, suffragettes and feminists have achieved astonishingly little. One reason is that most of them were also radically engaged in advancing left-wing causes across the board as well as the specific demands of women. When faced with the choice of which came first, the left or women, it was usually women who were pushed into second place. It is likely that some women would have got the vote in Britain well before the first world war if feminists had been prepared to accept age and property qualifications as opposed to giving the vote to all women over 21. Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of the Liberal prime minister at the time, explained to me that this was why she opposed the suffragettes: their limited aims would have swelled the Tory vote, on balance. Or so she and others believed.

In the event, votes for women over 30 was won easily, with no fuss at all, in 1918, for one simple reason. During the war millions of women had done men’s jobs, in industry, in public services like buses, even in France behind the lines, with energy and competence, even if need be with courage. Any doubt about their ability had been resolved by real women in actual experience. Theory had nothing to do with it. Equally in 1928, giving the vote to all women over 21 (the ‘Flapper vote’) was conceded virtually without opposition. Pragmatism beat idealism all along the line.

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It could be argued that pragmatism had a long history in England. Anglo-Saxon witenagemots included the abbesses of large convents, who had demonstrated their ability and judgment in running church estates. And women in Anglo-Saxon times who inherited property retained more power over it than at any time until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882. It was the Normans, with their continental notions of men’s rights, and their absolute distinctions, their theoretical as opposed to practical approach, who made the rules and so held back women for the next millennium.

What has often struck me is that all the successful women I have known in politics have been anti-feminist, though some have not dared to say so publicly. Barbara Castle, though stalwart Labour all her long life, and fairly far to the left, too, used to say: ‘The feminists have done absolutely nothing for me. I have had to do it all myself.’ She thought feminism, with its insistence on ‘Chairs’, etc, was often counterproductive. So did Violet Bonham Carter, the best woman speaker I have ever heard. Indira Gandhi believed she owed everything to her family and nothing to the women’s movement. Other early examples of women prime ministers, such as Mrs Bandaranaike of Ceylon (as it then was) and Golda Meir of Israel, advanced themselves by brains, persistence, guts and, not least, luck.

Luck certainly played a part in Margaret Thatcher’s political career — she was a consistently lucky politician — but guts far more. Concentration on a few key beliefs, enormous willpower and, above all, courage, all hitherto regarded as masculine virtues, formed the combination which took her to the top, and kept her there. She said to me: ‘The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’ The feminists opposed her because she disproved all their theory and adages. They never quote her as an example of women’s success in ruling and try to explain away all her triumphs. They hated her successful power-dressing, her extraordinary skill in keeping the hairdo impeccable during the longest and most stressful day (such a contrast to the pathetic Shirley Williams) and her ruthless use of female allure to get her ends. It would be difficult to think of any woman in the whole of history who so obstinately refused to fit into the feminist picture of the ideal woman in power, though Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great of Russia offer strong competition.

Across the Atlantic, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement provide a striking example of the way in which women advance in a modern media democracy despite, not because of, the women’s movement. The harshest, most strident and even vicious critics of Palin have been feminists. They regard her not just as a rival but as an enemy, and they long to see her public career crash down in irretrievable ruin. The Tea Party they regard with fear and loathing. It has brought to the fore an exceptionably large number of women, in all parts of the United States, and as candidates for all kinds of offices. Many are young, pretty and lively, and with a taste for jokes. Last November many got into office, probably the largest accretion of women to elective posts in American history. And all without a word of support from the feminists — indeed, to their manifest dismay. The alarm and questioning the Tea Party has caused in the women’s movement is not the least of its many attractions.

In Britain, the most significant aspect of feminism today is not so much what it does as what it shamelessly fails to do, and on one issue in particular: the subjection and exploitation of Muslim women. It is a taboo subject. Why should this be? Part of the explanation is fear. The suffragettes may have been wrong-headed in some ways. But courage in facing the mob — any mob — was not something they lacked. Modern feminists are craven in confronting Islamic mistreatment of women. An additional reason, however, is the old problem of fitting women into the world view of the left, in which Islamic Asia and Africa are seen as anti-West, and therefore ‘progressive’. The interests of ‘mere’ Muslim women have to be sacrificed to maintaining this illusion.

What history teaches is the importance of individual effort and personal character in improving the way we do things, and so advancing civilisation. This applies whatever section of humanity we are trying to enfranchise — members of the old working class in Britain, black people in America, women everywhere. What we want is first-class flesh-and-blood women, doing things, and doing them well. Not theoretical abstractions — ‘Chairs’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated