Britain has a new feminist hero. She’s a diminutive, eye-rolling force of nature. A BS-deflecting defender of the right and ability of women to get stuck into public life as well as any man can. A warrior against the neo-Victorian view of the female sex as fragile and unable to deal with the amorous advances of tragic blokes. It’s Ann Widdecombe, former Tory MP, Catholic convert, borderline national treasure, and now contestant on Celebrity Big Brother.
But this is no ordinary Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a feminist one, a Suffragette one. Yes, the Channel 5 show has gone political, giving a nod to the hundredth anniversary of women in Britain winning the vote (well, women over 30) by making the CBB house an all-female one. (For now. Men will be introduced gradually, like a strange tribe being slowly brought into civilisation.)
There’s Widdy, Rachel Johnson, actress Amanda Barrie — 82 and as beautiful as ever — India Willoughby, a trans TV presenter, Maggie Oliver, the Manchester detective who smashed the Rochdale child-grooming ring (how deliciously bonkers that she’s a celeb now), and some younger women I’ve never heard of but who I’m sure are wonderful people. It’s a genius mash-up of ages and experiences which looks set to shine a fascinating light on generational differences over the women question.
The first difference to blow up — on day one, just hours after the ladies were ushered into the glitzy panopticon — was over sexual harassment. Oh these debates will be good. The older contestants — Widdecombe and Barrie — scoffed at the idea that women are the easy prey of moguls and bosses and weirdos. ‘Just say no’, was Widdy’s firm advice to any woman who finds herself being leered over by a dodgy man.
Barrie was equally commonsensical. ‘When it comes to Harvey Weinstein, I just think somebody should have said, “It’s not really worth it darling, I’d rather not get the part!”.’ Imagine how spectacularly such a line would have deflated Weinstein’s fat ego as he stood there in his grubby bathrobe! Widdy backed Barrie: ‘I tend to agree, there was a choice.’
Cue open mouths from the younger contestants and a rebuke from Rachel Johnson (who’s become strangely PC of late). And of course the press is having a pop too. The Independent says Widdecombe and Barrie are accused of ‘victim blaming’. It quotes one outraged tweeter who was 'very disappointed in the highly ignorant opinion of the older ladies’.
But surely these older ladies are only restating what was once a core belief of women’s liberationists: that women don’t need chaperones or special protection and are quite capable of dealing with men, work and life? That Widdecombe and Barrie’s suggestion that women stand up for themselves, and reject or chastise men, was treated as a crazy ‘old lady’ thing to say tells us a lot about how feminism has changed — how a movement that once bigged up women’s strength now seems devoted to playing it down.
But Widdecome wasn’t done. She tore through the house like a tiny storm of unpopular opinion, laying waste to new feminist orthodoxies that she thinks paint women as the fairer sex. She announced her opposition to all-women shortlists in politics because she thinks women should be judged by their beliefs and achievements, not by their gender. ‘You cannot wish the competition away’, she said.
She rolled her eyes at some of the contestants’ tales of ‘discrimination’, including Ms Willoughby’s one piece of evidence that her life became harder when she transitioned from male to female: someone at work asked her to make coffee. She shut down a fact-lite debate about women getting paid less than men. ‘Where? Not in parliament.’
And she told a wicked anecdote about the ‘Blair Babes’ of 1997. One of them complained to Widdecombe about the rudeness of male MPs to female MPs. ‘The men are rude to each other too’, Widdecome shot back. It turns out the male MPs weren’t rude to her because she was a woman but because ‘she was useless!’, Widdecombe informed her agog fellow contestants. Widdecombe’s mini-speech about getting into parliament on the exact same basis as male MPs — by convincing voters to support her ideas — had me punching the air and mumbling the words to ‘The March of the Women’.
She seems hell-bent on making herself a one-woman slayer of the new victim feminism, of the now strangely mainstream idea that women need constant assistance and leg-ups. In this, she is far more faithful to the Suffragette outlook that CBB claims to be celebrating than the other contestants are. In this hundredth year of the women’s vote, who’d have thought it would fall to Ann Widdecombe on a celeb show to make the case for the power of womankind?