In my case the learning started in the early 70s. Those of us on the left in that period suddenly began to find ourselves challenged to recognise the importance of personal politics. It was so much of a shock that the standard male attitude was that all this women’s liberation stuff was a bit of a distraction and that anything that needed sorting would be worked out after the revolution. Deal with the important questions of economic equality first and then if there really was a problem over gender equality we could talk about it then. The standard female attitude was: do your fair share of the work or count me out.
The men talking about the correct interpretation of Karl Marx achieved very little. The women fighting a series of difficult and usually quite personal battles over gender equality made massive improvements to the quality of life for huge numbers of people.
So much so that the single most effective political movement of the last 40 years has been feminism. Closely followed by gay liberation. That doesn’t, of course, mean that women have achieved anything like equality or universal acceptance of enlightened attitudes. But it does mean few women having to think twice about challenging a man to do more work around the home, or saying that their career matters or confidently taking the initiative in starting a relationship. All of these things were pretty strange and unusual in the early 1970s and are now taken for granted by most sensible people.
As is the right for someone to follow their own sexuality and to be proud to be gay or confident in declaring themselves to be transgender.
Yet sometimes when an attitude is just about to triumph a backlash emerges and battles that we all thought were almost over emerge with renewed vigour. Just at the moment it would be really easy to make out a case that anything we had won in the battle for sexual liberation was at serious risk. Look around and there are plenty of grounds to dismiss my naïve optimism about how much has been achieved. The most powerful nation in the world has just completed its party congress and confirmed the power of an all male governing elite. The second most powerful nation has elected a President that boasts in the locker room about groping women. The fifth biggest economy in the world – sorry the 6th thanks to Brexit – is talking seriously about the next leader of the ruling party being a man who has six children but has never changed a nappy because the nanny does that. Oh and Mr Rees Mogg also thinks women who’ve been raped shouldn’t be allowed an abortion because two wrongs don’t make a right.
All of which would be worrying enough if it was a simple case of a few men launching a last ditch defence of their power. What is really worrying is the emergence of a trend for women to actively campaign for some very reactionary values. Exit polls show that over 50% of white women voted for Donald Trump. The group that did so in the greatest numbers were well off and comfortable stay at home wives.
There are a frighteningly high number of women on the right who are more scared of losing their economic privileges and of shaking up the social order than they are of being treated as a lesser partner in their relationship.
In these circumstances it is important to re-assert one of the best lessons of the past 40 years. There are real gains for all of us in opening up equality in personal relationships. Coming home to a dutiful Stepford wife is actually pretty boring and uninteresting for the man as well as representing horrible oppression for the woman. Empowering people who wish to be gay to enjoy open relationships is actually very helpful for straight men and women – it enables all of us to be a lot easier and more relaxed about saying who we are or who we wish to be without fearing that we’ll be ostracised for being different. Removing limits on what women can achieve helps remove limits on what everyone can achieve. Watching someone break through a barrier isn’t a genuine threat to anyone – it is a source of inspiration. If that person can do it despite all the difficulties they have faced then so can I, so can my family, so can people like me.
Political battles over sexuality have to be fought afresh with every generation. They rarely result in complete victory and are almost always accompanied by the most depressing of reactionary counter movements. But Mary Whitehouse didn’t win. Nor, I suspect, will the tea party women or the Daily Mail readers who think Rees Mogg is just the job since Boris is no longer quite so fanciable.
It is worrying enough that powerful British male politicians from both major parties think that being interviewed on the radio is worse than being groped and bullied into sex. It is a lot more worrying that some of the most virulent and aggressive voices against change come from women in the Tea Party.
But we have one powerful tool on our side. The battle for women’s liberation made progress for one very simple fundamental reason. It delivered hard practical gains to women in their everyday life. It also provided them with useful tools to argue for what was right and to change what went on in the most important sphere of their personal life. That is a seriously powerful weapon and if we keep on using it then the ladies of the Tea Party and the powerful men they support are certain to lose.