Tag Archives: capitalism

A Womb With a View: After birth – what I’ve learned…

IMG_6788So, here he is. Or, should I say, here we are.

Meet my five-week-old little boy, Evan, and his heavy-lidded, rocket-boobed, topsy-turvy mother. I’m someone changed quite a lot by the last month and a bit. I’m writing this with my thumb on my phone at 4.07am while feeding for starters (EDIT – I’ll be writing the rest of this column in 10-minute bursts in the next week-and-a-half when the baby’s gurgling at his cot’s mobile while farting/sleeping in his pram, which I’ve gingerly inched in from outside as he only conks out in the open air/cooing in the sling with his dad, at a time when I should really be catching up on sleep, blah blah blah).

I’m also someone who remains, despite everything, the same person.

The birth? Not conventional. Then again, whose is? I had an emergency caesarean section after 3 days of failed induction, at nearly 2 weeks over due date, and after countless alternative therapy sessions (yep, even this sceptic tried everything – and isn’t having your feet fiddled with for £60 divine). Pessaries and drips were applied, Mister still wasn’t shifting, his mum wasn’t dilating, and his heart-rate started levelling out.

And so the necessary was done. At 10.06am on Monday 28th April, in a bright operating theatre, my son made his entrance into the world. He was 9lb 4, 57cm long, with brown hair and a chubby belly. And yes, I’m lucky that I love him so very, very much.

Here’s some other things I learned about having a baby:

* Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. First-time mums do very little that other people do, but they do keep another tiny person alive, with no specialist training or experience, one-handed, on no sleep, in mismatched leisurewear with a stray, leaky tit.

* Yes, yes – I know I’ve barely started, and I’m proving that happy mums whinge a lot. We got ourselves in this position etc, etc. But as a person largely responsible for fulfilling the needs of another breathing human, while you’re in recovery from 24 hours+ of agonising pain/major abdominal surgery/a torn perineum, while everyone else tells you this is all normal, surely you’re allowed a grumble. You disagree? Then bugger off.

* Newborns rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time, if that. I missed this fact in the endless reams of baby literature I read beforehand. Mine is pretty good at kip (EDIT – I lie – the last two nights have been like living with the creature off Eraserhead – EDIT – he’s changed again, he was an angel last night ­- EDIT – this only proves the inconsistency of babies). Anyway, their short sleeping cycles should remind mothers of three little words. Take. Things. Easy.

* A diversion for my brief Caesarean Section. The idea of being too posh to push – ie that caesareans are the easy option – is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Before mine, I hadn’t realised how big an operation a c-section was; five weeks on, the seven-inch smile on my abdomen and the residual aches and pains reminds me I’m still recovering. If you have one, don’t panic – I am still in awe of them, genuinely, as a baby with an impacted head got pulled out of that tiny slit, somehow – but you need to remember how big these ops were after the fact. So: accept help from all sides. Buy a load of high-waisted, non-sexy granny knickers (thank you, John Lewis). Live in yoga trousers bought hurriedly online that make you look like you eat quinoa for breakfast. Take your bloody painkillers. Slob in front of DVDs you love when you’re feeding to cheer yourself up. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to be Superwoman.

* Don’t accept too many visitors. Or be prepared to tell people to sod off. You will probably be knackered and crave your own time more than ever before (then again, do see friends if it’ll make you feel a bit better, and if family are bringing warm arms to help you with the baby, then accept them).

* Our generation give ourselves a lot more shit about parenting than our mums and dads did. They only had people around them to ask, and most of us turned out OK. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

* The internet is unhelpful. Type any question about your baby’s health into Google, and the responses you’ll get will largely be from “normal mums”. Normal mums who a) you don’t know, b) might be mad, c) might be smug, d) keep telling you to “trust in the Lord’s work”, e) keep telling you to “trust in nature”. If I’d trusted in nature, as many women have to in countries less developed than ours, my baby and I might not have been here now.

* The internet is amazing. During endless night feeds, you can play Word Scramble, read the news, nose at people’s normal lives on Facebook, receive advice from countless wonderful people about your baby through Facebook, and text your mum-pals on Whatsapp. Which last point brings me to the the biggest tip of all…

* Meeting people having kids the same time as you, through antenatal classes or activities, or post-natal support groups, is essential. Knowing you’re not the only mad harpy worrying about every burp, sick or poo will change your life.

* The mental health of new mothers is a huge priority for healthcare professionals, as it should be, but normal anxieties get pathologised too much. Worried you might break your baby? Or drop it down the stairs? Every mum I’ve spoken to thought that too, so these worries aren’t necessarily a sign of incoming depression. Other medical issues get less attention, however, like babies that have tongue-tie (this is when babies’ tongues need a snip to help them feed properly). I know four recent babies who had this condition, and their mothers had to fight hard to find out if their children needed help. Without help, babies struggle to gain weight, spend hours at the breast, making their mothers, ironically, more and more distressed. All these women need is someone trained to have a very quick look at their little ones. So listen up, NHS.

* Becoming a mum soon? You will be endlessly grateful for having cooked and frozen meals before the big event. If you like being at the hob, as I do, this is what maternity leave is for (I also enjoyed solo cinema trips, afternoon dozes, and forages for weird old documentaries on the iPlayer – do use your maternity leave to do gentle things you enjoy). If you haven’t cooked and frozen food before baby comes, tell friends not to bring presents round, but something that can be shoved into a pot, or the oven in one dish, and eaten out of a bowl with one hand.

* A tea towel placed over a baby’s head helps you eat out of a bowl with one hand.

* Long, patterned, diaphanous scarves are essential pieces of kit for any new mum (not plain colours, ladies – these will show up dribble, or worse). Scarves help you feed discreetly when you need to, or hang over your pram, especially when the sun suddenly deigns to blaze out on a previously grey day (thanks for that, British spring).

* “Nature is amazing, science is awesome”. My friend Ellie, who gave me advice about what to do about the in-hospital Bounty reps in my previous column, said this to me in a text while I was still in recovery. It’s still the best sentence ever. For instance, when I was sad about Evan not having arrived in the usual way, and my body not having done what it “should” have done, I realised that every time he fed – which was, and is, often – I felt my stomach cramp, and this was helping me heal. Breastfeeding helps the womb contract, and reduce to its old size; now, five weeks on, I look pretty much as I did before I was pregnant. Somehow, our bodies also keep us awake in these difficult weeks, and power us through. But science also has its place, beyond doubt. Take Evan, on antibiotics for a week after he showed signs of infection, who is now absolutely thriving (EDIT – today’s weigh-in – 11 pounds – oof). Things don’t have to be either/or. Let’s use everything we’ve got to keep Mum and baby well.

* If your mum/friends seem to be posting pictures of their babies too often on social media, consider this: that may have been the most constructive thing she felt she did with her day, or the one moment when baby was happy that she wanted to preserve. Facebook pictures are little markers that say, yes, world, I can manage this.

* Midwives are brilliant, undervalued people. One upside of me being in hospital for a week is that I had fantastic midwifery care. I’d go further, in fact: when you’re a new mum, there’s something to be said for having a longer stay in hospital than six tiny hours (the usual time now), and being cared for by people who have been there, and done that. In hospital, I got specialist breastfeeding advice that proved invaluable later, was watched over by a midwife while I slept in bed with my baby (who wouldn’t sleep in his crib, when I’d hardly any sleep for five days), had every question answered about my baby’s qualities and quirks, and felt properly monitored. It’s helped me ever since.

* I’ve also got a new-found respect for the power of women. I’ve had so many of them help me immeasurably since Evan arrived – both professionally and personally – and as a result, I’m enjoying my little boy so very, very much. Here’s to all of you, ladies. And here’s to us. We’re still here!

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers 

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Why the East London housing crisis is a feminist issue

In February, Editor Deborah Coughlin reported on the Focus E15 Mums’ campaign against their mass eviction from temporary accommodation in Stratford, East London. Instead of being relocated to permanent housing nearby, the young mothers have been offered housing in Hastings, Birmingham, and other cities away from their support networks.

The Focus E15 Mums campaign is ongoing (you can sign their petition here) and a public meeting has been organised in their support by Feminist Fightback, Hackney DIGS and Plan C London, on Saturday 24 May in Bethnal Green. We got in touch with co-organisers Feminist Fightback for their perspective on the housing crisis.

We have organised this meeting to try and help raise the profile of a campaign that we see as very important – this is the coming together of young families (and young people in general) to fight for fundamental rights to decent homes; a decent place to live in the area they have either grown up in or found a home in. It is a campaign for something immediate in East London – halting evictions and ensuring secure housing for the families who are moved on – but it is part of something much bigger too. The brutal reality of London’s housing ‘superbubble’ combined with cuts to public services is frightening.

Some of us in Feminist Fightback grew up in east London, and many of us have lived here for many years. Many of us face the daily stress of housing insecurity ourselves – living in fear of the next market-driven rent hike, waiting to be thrown out of our homes because the landlord wants to sell to make a quick and easy profit. Also many of us work in East London as teachers, midwives, social workers – we work face-to-face with families forced into poor quality, insecure temporary housing and we are angry about the injustice of it.

Every week in my own work I meet young mothers living in one room with one, sometimes two young children, trying to make ends meet. This is ‘temporary accommodation’ but so many of these women have been living in such conditions for a year or more. This exists in the midst of intense gentrification in East London – all around us blocks of ‘luxury’ flats are being built, old houses are being refurbished into large family homes. Very few of these developments are accessible to ourselves or the families we work with day to day. Our homes are not our homes – they are ‘property’.

That is why the E15 focus campaign feels so important to support. The struggle of these young people against eviction poses the question of what society we want to live in. One that removes young families from their communities and forces them into insecurity, while the houses next door sell for half a million pounds? Or one that values people’s right to a home, a home not a property, no matter how much money or capital they have access to. For Feminist Fightback this question is fundamental not only to east London campaigners and activists but to feminist struggle as a whole.

We hope the campaigns gains momentum and hopefully the meeting will help with this. The intent is to build solidarity and gain more local support.

I don’t think many of us held out that much hope for an ‘Olympic legacy’ – this felt like a fallacy from the very beginning. When you live in insecure housing, with rent prices soaring all around you, it is very hard to feel overly grateful for a new shopping mall and sports centre…

For more information about the public meeting on Saturday 24 May, click here.

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Charlotte Raven

A feminist alternative to asylums?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

“You’ll enjoy this piece,” my daughter just said. “It’s your specialist subject.”

She’s right and this a bit of a worry. I hardly notice how much time I spend discussing theraputic modalities with friends and colleagues, or how many Google searches of the side effects of psychoactive medications.

Some of my best friends are mad. One writes self help books using an online acronym generator and another weaves. And one is in an out of the emergency psych ward of our local hospital, which really does seem like a revolving door.

Trawling through recent statistics at the start of mental health week, I was convinced that my mad friends are ‘everyday people’; mad is the new normal, in fact. 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental crisis in the course of a year. It is a woman’s issue, unarguably: women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem than men. We may be getting madder but a rational discussion is taking place about all this for the first time and nothing is off limits.

Everyone agrees; the crisis in mental health care is a gathering storm. Politicians are responding strangely and uncharacteristically. The brutal reality of care in the community has drawn criticism across the political spectrum, although the reasons are different. The Tories are worried about the sane members of the public being attacked by the mentally unstable and the left are worried about the people left in front of the TV in lonely flats for decades, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

At Christmas I was mad as a brush; depressed and alienated with little fellow feeling. Our family home had been a war zone because of my mental crises which have all merged into each other. Until three months ago, I was chronically depressed. I wasn’t sitting quietly in front of the TV watching Friends like my other depressed friends; I couldn’t move but managed to station myself in the one spot in the house where everyone would hear my anguished perorations. I spent whole weekends on the only comfortable chair in the kitchen, complaining about the chores, my doomed existence and the internet age.

I spent 5 years wondering what to do. Having recently read Gone Girl I’m glad I didn’t relocate to a provincial town and set up a bar with an East London name. Then one day an epiphany: I should retrain as a therapist! Several of my mad friends had done this, and a few sane ones who found their skills surplus to requirements. The writer I most admired had gone down this well trodden path. Fortunately for my patients-to-be, I realised I’d be a rubbish therapist one year into a course at the Tavistock: “You’d go on about your problems and never listen to theirs,” my daughter said.

For those who made this leap, their business is sustainable, if poorly remunerated. It is recession proof; a booming industry in this crazy-making late capitalist era.

Why is anyone sane? This system is built on false promises; you are built up and knocked down. We are constantly reinventing ourselves to keep up – and failing. Jobs for life to zero hours in the blink of an eye. Poverty drives people over the edge and if they bear witness to their traumatic experiences of inform on this ‘structurally genocidal’ system, they are discredited. We are all being gaslighted all the time; capitalism dims the lights, murders our friends and relations, then tells us we are lunatics. This system is a suitable case for treatment.

The biological view of mental illness is appealing because the pharmacological answer is a quicker fix than global revolution. We are all drugged up to the eyeballs and increasingly cavalier about it. I recently read something about Ritalin that said few parents asked about the side effects, possible alternatives, what these drugs were whether these drugs are even effective. We think they’re mild because we give them to children. In fact, Ritalin was first synthesized in 1944 in an unsuccessful attempt to create a non-addictive stimulant. This amphetamine-like substance is similar in chemical structure and effects. Like speed, it keeps you awake, suppresses your appetite and makes you anxious and irritable.

I empathise with this desire for quick fix. Who the hell wants a long fix? I was in three times a week therapy for a few years, and barely scratched the surface. When I couldn’t afford it, I decided pills were the answer – I just hadn’t found the right ones. An NHS psychiatrist diagnosed double depression; major depressive episodes on top of persistent dysthymia. He prescribed two different types of anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer. It worked, in a way. I am no longer depressed, but do feel like I’m on drugs.

One recent documentary, Generation RX examines the rise in psychiatric diagnoses among American children and teens from 1980 to 2007. The producer was shocked to learn that the majority of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to kids had never been proven safe or effective. But the regulatory watchdogs colluded with drug manufacturer in supressing evidence of suicidal thoughts and other side effects before Ritalin and other stimulants came to the market. The predictable result; a spike in teen suicides and 7-year-old insomniacs. Our children are the victims of our quick fix mentality.

If not drugs and TV then what? It’s the right moment to re-imagine institutional care and thereby capitalise on public disillusion with community care, without reviving the fear of Nurse Ratched. I came across a magazine of ‘democratic psychiatry’ called Asylum, while Googling the word to find out whether anyone had reclaimed it as a place of safety. They had.

I’ve been heartened by the dialogues I’ve had with radical service users and activists. “We’ve been banging on about this for years,” they said. Now people are listening. A group called Madlove has set about creating a ‘designer asylum’, a safe space where you could go mad “in a positive way.” The project will bring together people with and without mental health experiences, artists, and academics to conceive “a unique space” where “mutual care blossoms” and madness is redeemed. Then it will be built, opened and operate as a voluntary day hospital for six weeks.

As well as model asylums there should be mental health hubs (but don’t call them that!) in the community, within walking distance, where you won’t be stared at. I have been stared at in cafes. What would I have done if my husband had bailed out to protect his sanity? Where would I have gone?

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#GenderWeek: Class is to gender what a tube map is to London

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Is there anyone who lives in the world as a woman and a feminist who does not accept that there is such a thing as gendered oppression? That men, considered as a class, are involved or complicit in the doing down of women, considered as a class?

One of the things most self-defined radical feminists often seem to assume is that if they do not say this forcefully and often, no one else will notice this important truth. Indeed, they are so concerned to make the point that they end up ignoring, or treating as side issues, many other sorts of oppression, which many other women who are both radical and feminist take just as seriously as part of their feminist analysis and their feminist praxis. What is stigmatised as ‘liberal’ or ‘fun’ feminism is often nothing of the sort; it is a feminism committed to radical thought and action, which recognises multiple sources of the oppression of women, and tries to opt for a complexity and nuance that make effective action more, rather than less, possible.

The trouble with a statement like “men oppress women” is not that it is untrue. It is that it is a schematic and not a map; certainly not a detailed description of the territory or a universally reliable portrayal of how you get to your destination.

Often, a good schematic is all you need; the London tube map is a case in point. Yet, if you rely on it, you will rapidly find that some stations represented as closely adjacent are anything but and vice versa, or involve using lifts and tunnels for interchanges that take more time than expected. You need the schematic for some purposes and a reliable map for others; sometimes you need to just know the territory in order to find a hack, to find the actual quickest way.

We live in a society where oppression based on sex and gender is only one of an intersecting set of oppressions and discriminations. Class, race, sexuality, disability (both obvious and invisible), nationality, immigration status, and whether the sex you are assigned at birth correctly models your identity – these affect people in a variety of ways, and the policies and strategies we adopt have to reflect those complexities.

It is often destructive for, say, educated white middle class women to create policies on sex work without considering how they impact the lives of working class women of colour dealing with mental health issues or possible deportation. Ironically, protecting other women from exploitation by pimps and johns is not much help if it puts them in harm’s way from the equally male-dominated police, justice and immigration systems. A woman working in the financial services industry may unwittingly do vast harm to the interests of poorer women who need loans or mortgages – harm that has in part to do with the gender biases of banking, but also has to do with predatory late capitalism.

Almost all institutions, businesses and organs of the state are run by men, and to that extent are part of gender oppression – but those men are also mostly members of the locally dominant ethnic and religious group, are economically upper class, pass as straight and are able-bodied. Their gender is always relevant, but a struggle based on gender alone is not useful. There is a ‘liberal feminism’ worth fighting, and it is the one which regards gender and sex as so central that quite cosmetic changes will solve all our problems – you do not, for example, reform late capitalism by putting more women in boardrooms or the Cabinet, to be “the new boss, same as the old boss“.

Indeed, one of the things that has enabled capitalism to survive so many of the crises Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg and Goldman described and predicted is that it is endlessly self regenerating and adaptive; the ruling class has maintained a degree of identities through revolution and technological and demographic change by recruiting and co-opting.

A lot of the ‘radical feminist’ problem with trans women like me is based on a simplistic biological determinism – as if gender were purely socially constructed and yet, at the same time, a desire to oppress were written in our genes. Apart from the fact that this makes no logical sense, it ignores the fact that gender is a word with many overlapping meanings across a spectrum of usage, and that the biology of sex is by no means as simplistically binary as some people find it convenient to claim.

A real radicalism, to which feminism is central but which does not ignore the struggle for liberation from other oppressions, has to be suspicious of simple sloganistic formulae. The kyriarchy have proved endlessly supple and adaptive – able not only to survive but to continue to dominate; the struggle to overthrow it has to be at least as smart and perceptive.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

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Feminist Toolkit: Free Tampons For All

Picture the scene: you’re going about your day, power walking to work, singing along to your favourite feminist anthem, smashing the patriarchy with every step you take. And then it comes: the familiar wetness between the legs, and you’ve left your stash of tampons at home.

You break it down; you’ve got a few options:
1) Go home and pick up your provisions
2) Buy some more
3) Hang around in the toilet and hope someone armed with menstrual protection comes to your rescue
4) Bleed on yourself, and potentially others

As you’ve already forked out this week to buy the new trousers you’re fashioning today, options 2 and 4 will have to go. Risking being late for work whilst weighing up your shortlist with frustration, you have a light bulb moment.

You realise what’s been missing all this time; wouldn’t it just be great if you could access free tampons in your workplace? You tease out the idea in your head: your place of work won’t fund them and you can’t sustain a communal tampon stash out of your own back pocket. Then you think back to all those times where you’ve been accompanied by an unneeded tampon goldmine in your bag. If there were a collection point for those tampons, never again would a woman like you be stuck in the street weighing up her options.

Taking action, you march home inspired by your revolutionary idea. You wash up last night’s takeaway tub, grab the box of tampons in your draw and a few pads for good measure, rushing to work, pausing only for an instant to plug your own menstrual flow. Arriving at work you tear into the bathroom, ripping apart an old envelope from your desk and securing it onto the tub, scribbling on it a few words about your idea.

You feel elation as you place the tub in the bathroom and stare back at the revolution you have started. The words read: “The Sisterhood of the Slightly Stained Pants: please take a tampon if you are in need, and put one back whenever you have a spare”

DISCLAIMER – this story is not entirely fictional.

UoN Feminists, Nottingham University’s feminist campaign group had a very similar revelation. We call them Tampon Tubs and we want them to empower women by ensuring a ready supply of menstrual protection. We thought it was important that an unexpected period should not impede women in our university, therefore this term we will be placing Tampon Tubs in our Student’s Union building.

One of the best parts of this campaign is that the Sisterhood of the Slightly Stained Pants can be easily built wherever you are. Here is a how to guide to setting up your own:

#1: Find a container: any kind of Tupperware, tub or bowl will do. For best results, choose something plastic and transparent.

#2: Next, label your container explaining the ethos behind the idea. Make sure people know that the sustainability of the system relies upon others replenishing the tub.

#3: Provide an initial supply of tampons and pads. Depending on your outlet, you could gather a group to chip in or secure funding from your Student’s Union, employers, or nearest patriarchal figure.

#4: Place your tub in the toilet in your place of work, school, university, or anywhere else. We recommend this facility for women’s, gender-neutral, unisex and disabled toilets.

#5: Finally, tell everyone about it! Make sure your tubs are known about and used. Share the idea and encourage your friends to do the same. The more Tampon Tubs about, the more women are able to arrange their periods around their lives rather than the other way around!

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£500 million Easter indulgence in perspective

A recent episode of the BBC’s Supermarket Secrets saw everyone’s favourite Masterchef judge Gregg Wallace stood in a chocolate factory watching molten Belgian chocolate being sprayed into a plastic owl mould, in what appeared to be an elaborate advert for Waitrose’s brand new Easter range of woodland chocolate animals. You can buy the full set – Spike the hedgehog, Hop the frog, Ollie and Izzy the owls (Izzy comes in pink, of course, for the girls) – for £20.

In good impartial BBC style, we also saw Gregg making hot cross buns in Sainsburys and learning about supermarket psychology in Morrisons – because other supermarkets are available, but only one will provide you with charming chocolate owls and hedgehogs instead of your common or garden Easter bunnies and chicks.

We Brits are expected to spend £500 million on chocolate this Easter and, according to Supermarket Secrets, retailers have seen a 25% increase in sales of chocolatey Easter treats. Basically, we’re all suckers for chocolate moulded into cute animal shapes, and we’re falling for it in our millions – kids, parents and non-parents alike.

Even I, a notorious hater of hollow Easter confectionary, found myself momentarily seduced by Spike the hedgehog, with his cute little chocolate spines and “eat me” eyes. But if we all just stopped scoffing, what else could our £500 million be spent on?

While all the other women’s magazines are full of tips on creating the prettiest yummy mummy Easter egg hunt, we put the cost of Easter indulgence into perspective.

£500 million would pay for…

Mortgage payments for more than 5,000 homes for Maria Miller’s family

Maria Miller


Annual salaries for 500 of Barclays’ highest paid bankers



Nearly 1,000 overpriced garages in South East London



Paying off the debts of almost 10,000 students



More than 16,000 NHS nurses for a year, on an average salary of £30,000pa



A pet hamster for ALL of the 63 million people in the UK – lasts at least a year longer than a chocolate hamster, and much more cuddly


Main photo: Wikimedia Commons

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‘Manifestly Inadequate’: austerity and cuts are punishing and devastating

After being found ‘fit for work’, Miss DE committed suicide. Her benefits were cut, despite her long-term depression. Without consulting her doctors, ATOS decided she should lose her Incapacity Benefit and the drop in income made her fear she would lose her home.

On Hogmanay last year, she killed herself.

Normally it is unwise to speculate on the cause of somebody’s suicide but, in this case, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland (MWC) carried out a detailed investigation and found that, despite years of stress-related depression, she had never before displayed suicidal behaviours. She was doing voluntary work, getting married, and undergoing treatment. The MWC concluded that: “There wasn’t anything else which we could identify that would lead us to believe that there was any other factor in her life that resulted in her decision to end her life.”

Almost two months earlier, in Bristol, Jacqueline Harris also killed herself after ‘failing’ her Work Capability Assessment (WCA) during which she was said to have been only asked one question. Her benefits were stopped and her limited mobility, severe pain and visual impairment prevented her from being able to seek work.

Without a full enquiry or inquest verdict it is inappropriate to suggest that Harris’s suicide was down to this single factor, but the connection between WCAs and a deterioration in mental health is undeniable:

  • 13% of psychiatrists report that at least one of their patients had attempted suicide as a result of the assessment process
  • 85% had patients who had been so distressed they needed more frequent appointments
  • 65% had patients needing stronger medication
  • 35% have had patients admitted to hospital

Disability benefits are complicated, and people can receive up to six different awards, sometimes for relatively small amounts, due to the way the system is set up. Furthermore, certain benefits entitle their recipients to other help, such as motability cars and public transport passes, so losing a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claim will not only cause a drop in income, but also create an inability to travel, go to the shops, or attend medical appointments.

Because of the incredibly complex way that cuts are affecting disabled people, more than 100,000 people signed the WOW petition, calling for the government to carry out a Cumulative Impact Assessment of the impact of the cuts on disabled people. This would look at not just how the bedroom tax, DLA cuts, and introduction of ESA are affecting people separately, but would instead study the impact of combination of cuts, all happening simultaneously.

The government refused.

Even taken individually, the cuts are having a devastating impact. Disability is really expensive. Specialist equipment, needing taxis due to inaccessible public transport, employing support workers, and needing specially designed clothes are just a few factors that need to be taken into account. All in all, disabled people are being set upon from every angle, and the lack of a Cumulative Impact Assessment means that the unfairness of the attacks cannot be fully exposed.

The Independent Living Fund has also been abolished, a move that Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have described as, “a regression of disabled people’s rights”. Those using the ILF are the severely disabled, and the fund was designed to help people live independently in their own homes. This is a right that is taken for granted by many non-disabled people who are not at risk of being confined to a group home or care facility, potentially as a young adult, subject to others’ rules and regulations, infantilised and segregated.

Two-thirds of people being hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ are disabled; the Disabled Students’ Allowance has now been targeted; up to 15% of disabled people affected by cuts have relied on a food bank; and the European Committee of Social Rights has stated that benefit levels in the UK today are “manifestly inadequate”. And even the economic benefits to the country are questionable: the potential savings of £145 million, as a result of the change from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments, is eclipsed by the potential £456 million that will be lost when disabled people who lose their DLA award have to stop working as a result. Plus, the extra hospitalisations, medication and psychiatrist appointments described above will cost the state far more than the associated benefit cuts will save.

Almost all of these cuts can have very expensive, as well as personally devastating, consequences, clearly demonstrating that they are an ideological rather than a true cost-cutting measure. The government’s focus on attacking those least able to fight back is cowardly and cruel and, combined with the viciousness of the cuts affecting women, disabled women in particular are under extreme pressure.

A Cumulative Impact Assessment is absolutely necessary to measure and quantify exactly what is happening, and the EHRC have now stepped in. To really fight back, we have to understand the precise situation we are in, so we can fight to support the most vulnerable in our society.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

Photo: Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

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Womb with a View: Bounty – I’ve got my best “fuck-off face” ready

We asked Bounty for a response and have published it directly below the article. It includes contact details for anyone who has had a difficult experience and for those wanted to take themselves off the Bounty database.

Two weeks to go… or rather, not two weeks to go. I’m 38 weeks pregnant today, and his Highness could plausibly arrive this afternoon. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or the week after that.

Between the 37-week mark and the 42-week “we’ll try anything” cut-off, a pregnant women is ready to roll, set to go, fully cooked. So what are women like me really thinking about now? The small issue of pushing a baby out between our legs, yes. But also what happens soon after, and who we want to be with us.

This brings me to Bounty, an organisation in the news frequently last summer. A profit-making company that provides “support to families in the transition to parenthood”, their representatives are present on many post-natal wards in the UK. Here, they sell women photographs of their babies hours after they’ve had them, get paid by HMRC to pass on Child Benefit forms (some Bounty reps have told mothers it was the only way to get them) and sign away patients’ details to parent-friendly businesses. Yep, you read that right.

This isn’t the brave new world of the stripped-down NHS either. Bounty has been around in hospitals for over 50 years, although what they do there has changed significantly.

These days, women encounter Bounty very early on in their pregnancies. At my 10-week check – at which the risk of miscarriage is still significant – I was presented with my free Bounty folder. This is a heavyweight plastic bag full of free samples and advertising. No, I’m not averse to a freebie but this didn’t seem the right environment so, after a cursory look through, I chucked the lot in the bin. (One leaflet also offered dietary advice that contradicted NHS guidelines – yes, I can eat stilton, you demons – which I emailed them about and, to their credit, they responded.)

A note on the back of the Bounty bag was more galling, however. “Mum to be tip: baby brain? Keep your maternity notes in here so you know how to find them,” it gushed. There, there, dear, went Bounty, patting our silly little heads. We’d much rather be patronised than supported.

Then I started hearing about other women’s experiences of Bounty. One friend was pressured to sign up by her midwife, before miscarrying, then kept getting information from the company on what would have been her due date. Another had a very poorly baby and kept getting harrassed in intensive care. Another thought the Bounty rep was one of many health professionals at first, before handing over her email to send her away – only to get bombarded with spam emails ever since, selling life insurance, kids’ ISAs and toddlers’ ballet lessons.

The first issue to tackle here is transparency. Why don’t these reps say who they are straightaway? I’m told that, in the hours after giving birth, medical staff pop in constantly; a new mother isn’t necessarily going to be ready to deal with uninvited guests. Also, why are these reps allowed into wards when only a few other family members are, especially given the risk of infection? Are these reps monitored and checked properly? Are they made aware of women’s different medical circumstances? A woman could have had an easy labour or a very traumatic one. Neither kind, from the anecdotes I’ve heard, is spared the sales treatment.

So what do Bounty bring the NHS? In a word: money. Amy Willis’ June 2013 investigation for The Telegraph revealed that 150 NHS hospitals were signed up to cash-for-access contracts. Some hospitals were paid according to the number of babies born, while others got bonus commissions when Bounty managed to take their bloody photographs. Furthermore, as of last summer, HMRC paid Bounty £90,000 a year to distribute child benefit forms – forms that can be picked up in post offices for free or downloaded online.

No change has been reported about this figure yet. It isn’t exactly the best use of taxpayers’ money, whichever way you slice it.

But things are hopefully changing. Last summer, a Change.org petition against Bounty attracted over 25,000 signatures. As a result, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, Dan Poulter – a medical doctor himself – wrote to the Chief Executives of NHS Trusts expressing his concerns, albeit it, of course, in a very privatisation-friendly way.

“Whilst it is beneficial to have accessible information available to women when they are responsive to messaging”, he wrote – a touch of the “baby brain” schtick there, so thanks for that, Dan – “I am sure you will agree that it is unacceptable for parenting support organisations including Bounty to use this as an opportunity to collect private data and share it without the expressed informed consent of the parents.” Which is all well and good.

This letter was written last June. By July, Poole and Highland NHS Trusts had severed their Bountry contracts. By August, Poulter was saying that the Care Quality Commission would be enabled to take action against maternity wards that “did not ensure the protection of women’s dignity and privacy”. The worry I have now, however, is that this story loses traction. That overworked staff on maternity units forget the complaints that have been made. That the existence of Bounty reps on the wards for so many years makes the issues blend into the background – rather than the practices of individual reps being questioned.

After all, these are some of my friends’ experiences of Bounty, on post-natal wards, since last August. There’s the friend who was having difficulty breastfeeding when the rep appeared – a woman who didn’t take a strongly-worded hint to leave well alone. There’s the friend who was told by an anonymous woman that she needed her details, without being told how these details were going to be used – expressly against the advice recommended by Dan Poulter. A few others had better, hands-off treatment, and I’m hoping for the same – but I have the advantage of being prepared for it, which many women don’t.

Whatever happens in the next four weeks, I’m taking the advice of my friend Ellie. After the birth, whatever happens, I’ll have my best “fuck-off face” ready.

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers

Response from Clare Goodrham, Bounty General Manager said: “As a proud partner of the NHS for over 50 years, which sees over 2,000 new mums every day, we have worked to provide free products and important health information to generations of new mothers. We work closely with hospitals to ensure that mums and hospital staff are happy with the service we provide, and 92% of mums say that they love our packs as it gives them free products and money off coupons.

We are proud to give mums such offers and we take a responsible approach to sharing information with our partners. We audit and approve all the communications that our members receive and enforce a strict policy that data is only shared with our partners when a member has given us permission. We understand that some members might change their minds about this, so anyone who does not wish for their data to be shared can be removed from our database within 24 hours and no longer receive correspondence from Bounty or our partners if they wish.

Whilst expecting a baby should be such a joyful event, we know from our long term partnership with Tommy’s the baby charity that for one in four women things can go wrong and they lose a baby in pregnancy or birth. Bounty takes its responsibility seriously and has systems in place so that our members can privately update their membership details on our website or unsubscribe using a link at the bottom of our home page www.bounty.com and any of our emails. Additionally, Bounty signposts to the Baby Mailing Preference Service on our website and through our customer services team as the service will ensure that any communications from other sources they may have signed up to are also stopped.

At Bounty, we want 100 % satisfaction with our service and regularly assess all aspects of our practices to ensure that mums continue to get the best experience possible. Our Independent Advisory Board is also in place to provide us with recommendations for how we can continually improve our service and the experience for mums across the country. If anyone has any specific complaints or suggestions for improvement, then please let us know straight away at telluswhatyouthink@bounty.com.”

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#SexIndustryWeek: We can’t have good sex in an unequal society

How might we envision a future without the sex industry? It is a future that more and more feminists are actively pursuing. To the many more who – though they might fancy the idea of sex industry free society – say that it is so firmly embedded in human history and culture as to render such a vision little more than a pipe dream, I can only say what feminism itself says: that what is constructed in history can be de-constructed in history. And we are not the first generation to say so; there have been many documented attempts to construct and to actually live in sexual utopias.

That the communities who ‘lived the dream’ drew their authority from the Bible might not, on the face of it, appear to be very promising – particularly given the fact that the first and most sustained efforts arose within that contingent of Bible-bashers we are most inclined to despise and distrust: the Puritans.

I should explain that the Puritans from whom I (along with the late great Tony Benn) draw inspiration are the early Puritans – the Levellers and Diggers who stood out against Cromwell’s attempts to restore the very worst aspects of the old patriarchal order after the Civil War in 1649. Their roots lay in the dissenting sects sometimes termed ‘holiness movements’ of the previous century, whose adherents either found themselves (by being poor and illiterate) or had consciously placed themselves as outsiders in the established religious and social structures of their times. Believing that, as promised in Scripture, God’s spirit of prophecy would in future times be poured out on all flesh, rich and poor, “menservants and maidservants”, they and their successors saw themselves as heralds of the new heaven and new earth which was, they believed, coming to birth in their own time.

It would be pushing it to claim direct continuity between the utopian radicalism of the early Puritan’s pre-industrial world and the political movements which have arisen within the modern, secularised West. That said, they offer some useful pointers to those struggling to envision a new order of sexual equality today – all of which spring from the fact that, as countless documents reveal, they put a high value on sex as one of the Creator’s greatest gifts.

My guess is that had they known about it at all, the early Puritans would have opposed the sex industry not because it was immoral but because it was joyless. And for joy to abound there has to be mutual affection between the parties involved… Or as we would say today, they would have to really fancy each other!

The crucial thing about the early Puritans’ sexual idealism was that it was inseparable from their Biblically-derived social egalitarianism. If the nation’s land and resources were “every man and maid’s portion”, as the Diggers proclaimed, then there could be no reason for either “birth nor portion” to “hinder” a match. Thus they resisted the dynastic and/or commercial considerations upon which bourgeois parents were wont to arrange their children’s marriages.

The ideals and ideas embodied in the early Puritan movement have resurfaced again and again over the last 400 years, albeit in different forms and in different language (the words ’socialist’ and ‘feminist’ were not ‘invented’ until the 19th century), but are they alive and well in feminism today?

The Owenite Movement, whose name derives from the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), had strong roots in the holiness movements of the 17th Century, and the language of their socialist pamphlets drew heavily upon the populist rhetoric of 17th Century dissidence. The movement attracted thousands of followers in the 1820s who, for the next 25 years, attempted to put theory into practice by forming “communities of mutual association” based on collective family life and the sharing of property .

By the middle of the 19th Century, social utopian ends could be more effectively pursued through parliamentary reform. Of all the great feminist reformers of the period it was Josephine Butler, famous for her campaigns on behalf of street prostitutes and her exposure of the growing international trade in underage girls, who was the among the first feminists to see prostitution as a cause and consequence of women’s inequality. Sex for cash was not, in Butler’s terms, an offence against morality but a desecration of women’s bodies and hence an offence against love itself.

Which brings me back to the present and the question of how we might usefully draw upon Butler’s and others’ work to build our own sex-industry free utopia. I think we can safely start from the assumption that the high-hearted men and women I’ve referred to were far less interested in denouncing ‘vice’ or cleaning up the streets than in making a world in which supply and demand would wither away. A tall order, but one which more and more people are pursuing now that the “old Immoral world” of capitalism, as the Owenites termed it, does not appear to serving any of us very well. Least of all the overwhelming majority of those who service today’s sex industry.

So what would a sex trade free world look like?

It’s now clearer than ever that we can’t have good sex in an unequal society; only when we have an equal society can we hope the world will be a sexier place.

Susan Dowell is a freelance journalist, grandmother of 11 and peace activist, who worked in Africa for five years during the 1960s. She is a theologian and co-author, with Linda Hurcombe, of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve (1981).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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LONG READ: Chav is a feminist issue

Feminist Times Contributing Editor Reni Eddo-Lodge took part in the Manchester Met feminist conference last week. She heard this speech by Rhian E Jones and came back to the Fem T office wide-eyed and excited about it. With kind permission from Rhian, we publish the speech below.

Intersectional Feminism, Class, and Austerity

Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.


The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.

The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender.

These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.

‘Chav’ is a feminist issue

Over the past few decades, despite insultingly obvious and deepening socioeconomic divides, official political discourse has continued to insist that we live in a meritocracy. From this, it follows that anyone unable to gain a sufficient share in the wealth – since they cannot be structurally disadvantaged – must simply not be trying hard enough. In order to reconcile this almost charmingly insincere idea with the recent manifest reality of life under imposed austerity, with its falling wages, rising prices, and flatlining standards of living, we have seen the reanimation of Victorian and Edwardian ideas of the undeserving poor. In politics, media, and popular culture, class is increasingly identified by moral rather than economic or occupational indicators, with class-inflected ideas of ‘respectability’ the means by which morality is made publicly visible.

This approach, a rhetorical and material triumph for the forces of neoliberalism, seeks to justify political attacks on the recipients of state welfare by subsuming them all into an underclass characterised as ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’, ‘workshy’ and ‘feckless’, despite the fact that a majority of welfare recipients are in work and still struggling with lower wages, higher rents and increased costs of living. In this remaking of the working class, the despised, mocked and hated figure of the ‘chav’ has been instrumental, as a class stereotype externally imposed upon what is a more complex and heterogeneous working class, to the exclusion of alternative identities. Significantly, this figure is very often female. The uses made of the female ‘chav’ in political and media discourse illustrate vividly how abstract meanings are articulated through images of women, and the particular strain of misogyny which ‘chav’-hatred can contain.

Over the past decade or so, the British ‘underclass’ has been presented in a heavily gendered and sexualised way, with images of pram-pushing and pregnant teenage girls, or slovenly and self-absorbed single mothers, used to express ideas of poverty, deprivation and dysfunction. These images crop up not only in the right-wing press but also across popular culture, and particularly in comedy, where they tend to be self-conscious or pastiche performances by those not identifying as a permanent part of the subculture – the prime example of this being Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard character. In a rant by James Delingpole, in the Times in 2006, Vicky Pollard is made to embody:

… several of the great scourges of contemporary Britain: aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye…

This kind of anti-‘chav’ rhetoric serves as a very thin veil for the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes of working-class women and girls – presenting them as sexually precocious and promiscuous, and their childbearing choices as the result of irresponsibility or scheming material greed. It also contains a tacit disapproval of the behaviour of women who exist outside traditional roles, deriving their support from the state rather than a male breadwinner. Alongside this cultural stereotyping, government rhetoric insistently seeks to validate its reduction or removal of state support from benefits claimants by playing on the stereotype of the idle and recklessly promiscuous single mother, and the moral decline, sexual depravity, and social disintegration her lifestyle choices are held to represent.

Anti-‘chav’ commentators in media and politics are often disquietingly obsessed with describing the presumed licentiousness of working-class women, whose irresponsibility, lack of deference, and refusal of traditional family and community hierarchies, must be politically penalised. All this happens with barely a glance at context or circumstance, with the working-class ‘bad girl’ understood not in terms of poverty or social exclusion but in neoliberal terms of individual moral degeneracy. The perceived inadequacies of single mothers or comprehensive schoolgirls are viewed as purely individual failings or pathology, rather than related to their demoralising circumstances or lack of financial and material resources.

The female ‘chav’ is further used in narratives of slut-shaming and taste-policing, where she represents unladylike promiscuity, lack of restraint, and vulgarity in dress, speech and behaviour. These qualities, already heavily class-inflected, are held to be especially objectionable in women, with sexual excess in particular seen as a central signifier of ‘disrespectable’ femininity. Intersections like this make explicit several implications of the discourse around the female ‘chav’, not least the conflation of sexuality and class to invoke the Victorian and Edwardian spectre of working-class women, with their hazardous lack of morality, taste and discrimination, and their unregulated sex drives, spawning hundreds of equally depraved and financially burdensome children. This trope also continues the historical representation of working-class women via their ‘deviant’ sexuality, as opposed to what the sociologist Beverley Skeggs has observed as the possibilities for ‘rebellion, heroism and authenticity’ which the working-class identity has historically held for men.

Exclusionary definitions of ‘working class’

In the left and liberal media there has been both recognition and confronting of the ‘chav’ stereotype as a method of class demonization. However, much of this has not paid sufficient attention to the gendered and raced dimensions of the term, and has sought to redress the idea of ‘chav’ by proposing equally inadequate and exclusionary models of working-class identity. These tend to either draw heavily on the historical figure of the noble and oppressed worker, who is invariably white and male – or to present the ‘white working class’ as an oppressed and neglected ethnic group on whom ‘chav’ is a slur. Within these parameters, the ‘chav’ becomes a figure of ‘borderline whiteness’ invoked in what Imogen Tyler identifies as ‘an attempt to differentiate between respectable and non-respectable forms of whiteness’. In the same way that anti-‘chav’ rhetoric can become a cover for misogyny, it can also work as an excuse to propagate racist or anti-immigration narratives. The ‘chav’ also appears as a modernised version of Marx’s lumpenproletariat – implicitly feminised by dint of being unable to express the securely masculine identity that comes with being a ‘respectably’ employed breadwinner.

These obviously dubious arguments, then, present whiteness and maleness as signifiers of what it is to be ‘authentically’ working class. In the short-lived Blue Labour project a few years back, Maurice Glasman presented the Labour Party’s history after 1945 as an emasculating ‘cross-class marriage’ of a put-upon working-class husband and a domineering middle-class wife. Similar sentiments informed the speech made in 2011 by the Conservative David Willetts, in which he attempted to portray feminism’s achievements, in enabling larger numbers of women to enter higher education and employment, as a process which had displaced and weakened working-class men. This kind of disingenuous dog-whistling criticises women’s emancipation while offering nothing to address the very real disadvantages and anxieties of working-class men. It also postulates some disciplined army of empowered middle-class feminists against an incoherently resentful horde of disenfranchised working-class men – while, in these scenarios, the existence of working-class women appears to go entirely unacknowledged.

The debate on ‘chavs’ is a significant arena in which working-class women are granted political visibility – only to then be discussed negatively through disingenuous stereotypes, and have their social and sexual conduct policed. But this gendered dimension to the debate has been surprisingly neglected by a mainstream liberal feminism which can fail to take account of other axes of privilege and oppression. Acknowledging that the discourse around ‘chavs’ can provide a cover for denigrating the social agency and sexual autonomy of working-class women, as well as for wider political attacks on the unemployed and working poor, would significantly enrich mainstream feminism and challenge the perception of it as irrelevant outside an academic and metropolitan elite.

Neglected traditions of working-class feminism

I will now contrast these presentations of feminism and of class with some aspects of my own experience. I grew up a feminist as well as a socialist, and both of these identities were rooted in my consciousness of class. Feminism and socialism seemed to go hand-in-hand when I considered things like the legacy of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the support groups formed by miners’ wives, partners and other women in communities like my own. Although such groups were primarily set up to distribute food and cash donations to the families of striking male breadwinners, as the strike progressed their female members increasingly found themselves taking more explicitly political roles as part of fundraising and outreach work, and becoming public figures and community leaders in what had traditionally been a male-dominated political sphere. Through these networks of mutual support and solidarity, working-class women, while on the one hand acting in support of what might be seen as a macho and patriarchal industrial culture, on the other hand gradually challenged the chauvinism in which this culture could be steeped.

Similarly, factory work, despite its immediate associations with industrial masculinity, has historically also been a potential hub of female working-class solidarity. This unfashionable species of feminism stretches from incidents like the 1888 strike by women and girls at the Bryant and May match factory to the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant. The Ford Dagenham strike saw female workers take on their male bosses over sexual discrimination, with several becoming radicalised in the process, and its success eventually resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

Awareness of histories like these can help to break down overly essentialist and unhelpfully narrow ideas of class identity, present on the left as well as the right, which characterise ‘the working class’, or even just its politically organised sections, as composed only of white, male, urban industrial workers. This latter concept of class, and its decreasing relevance, is frequently used to deny that ‘working-class’ is still a viable contemporary political identity, despite the continued existence of class relations and class inequality. These perspectives neglect the fact that over the past thirty years, deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, and the loss of skilled factory jobs have not only destroyed a former source of masculine status and self-respect, but also weakened what could be a source of political and social empowerment and consciousness-raising for women.

Today, the face of mainstream feminism is likely to be turned away from the bleak financial and employment futures facing women under austerity, and towards symbolically financial issues like the campaign to put Jane Austen on a banknote, or the low number of women attending this year’s World Economic Forum. It is instructive to compare the attention given to these issues – or to even more peripheral concerns – and the lack of attention given to, for instance, the current campaign by single mothers in East London to draw attention to their impending eviction following their local authority’s austerity-driven decision to reduce single-parent housing. The mainstream media’s preoccupation with ‘lifestyle’ or ‘Lean In’ feminism does little to engage with the material pressures experienced by a growing majority of women, or to draw meaningfully on previous industrial traditions of working-class feminism.

The trouble with ‘rebranding feminism’

Beyond the mainstream, a number of feminists on- and offline have made welcome attempts to integrate class into their analyses, and much of the revolutionary left has engaged positively with feminism as an expression of class struggle. However, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in some feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands on their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise ‘rough’ to be directly engaged with. The closest we seem to have come to attempts to alter this has been the recent debate on the need to ‘rebrand’ feminism as more inclusive, particularly of women who fall outside of its supposed white and middle-class power-base. Within these debates on how to make feminism ‘accessible’ to ordinary women, however, otherwise well-meaning feminist analysis has been vulnerable to reductive, stereotyping and patronising uses of the term ‘working-class’.

The idea of a divide between academic and populist ways of promoting progressive politics is not unique to feminism; a similar debate periodically engulfs much of the left. How can ‘ordinary women’, or indeed ‘ordinary people’, be appealed to in language which will resonate with their everyday concerns and not alienate them by using words of more than two syllables? The trouble with this question is that the first half doesn’t automatically imply the second. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. A feminist politics predicated on this false dichotomy, of ‘high theory’ middle-class feminist activists and disenfranchised, politically unconscious working-class women, risks buying into narratives which see working-class parents, schools and communities as unable to impart education or instil political consciousness in the same way as their middle-class counterparts, and which present working-class girls in particular as the helpless inhabitants of some kind of neo-Victorian netherworld.

The ‘chav’, crucially, is represented as uneducated and often actively hostile to the idea of education, negating the possibility of self-improvement. But the idea that there are no grey areas, no available identities, between the volubly ignorant Vicky Pollard and an empowered and educated middle-class feminist leads to the double-bind whereby political engagement and consciousness raising is seen as automatically conferring class privilege and upward mobility upon an individual, thereby barring them from identifying with or being categorised as ‘working-class’.

In reality, not only have many university-educated feminists come from working-class backgrounds, but working-class feminists form part of the long line of working-class autodidacts whose attraction to ideologies of emancipation partly results from the desire to articulate and analyse their own experiences. Women’s Studies, at least in the UK, was rooted to a large extent in attempts by women of generally less privileged backgrounds to question and critique the privileges of existing academia, and to draw attention to neglected perspectives and experiences, including those marginalised by virtue of class, race, age, ability or sexuality. The fact that feminism within academia can now be considered to be middle-class and irrelevant says more about the squeezing out of attention to and discussion of class-based analysis within it; as well as the erosion of empowering traditions of adult education and of self-education through libraries and community colleges; and the pricing out of poorer students, than it does about education’s intrinsic appeal to, and suitability for, anyone outside the bourgeoisie.

Conclusion: women, austerity and intersectionality

Advocating that feminism be ‘rebranded’ in simple words, however well-intentioned the argument, can entail falsely assuming that ‘ordinary women’ are unable to understand theoretical ideas like intersectionality – when, in fact, the lives of working-class women offer many practical examples of multiple systems of oppression, most obviously including, but not limited to, those based on race, gender and class. Under austerity, we are seeing the driving down of wages, living standards and working conditions; closures and funding cuts to women’s refuges and childcare services; the sale of council housing and removal of housing, child, and disability benefit. Where this erosion of the welfare state impacts on women, it does so from several intersecting angles: women are affected not simply as women, but as women of colour, as disabled women, as mothers, as carers, as low earners or unemployed – very often, several of these at once. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum. The problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional: material disadvantage amplifies, and is amplified by, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism, all experienced as real and immediate issues enforced by existing structures of power. Women’s grassroots organisations and actions, which analyse and oppose the impact of austerity, will be informed by an awareness of how gender and race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality – not intersectionality as it is often caricatured, as a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. The past and present experience of working-class women offers a real-life, intuitive and logical application of the ideas and concepts that are apparently considered too complex for the likes of them.

Speech originally published on Rhian’s own site The Velvet Coalmine.

Rhian E Jones works in retail and writes on politics, history, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender and a co-editor at New Left Project. Blog: http://velvetcoalmine.wordpress.com, Twitter: @RhianEJones

Photo: Ben Sutherland

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NHA Party: “Your NHS is being destroyed and you don’t even know it”

There is a genuine urgency in the way Dr Louise Irvine talks about her political mission: “Our NHS is being privatised, and people don’t know what’s happening!

“If they did know, they would be completely up in arms about it,” she believes. “And that’s our job. We need a movement to defend the NHS – most people still don’t know that it’s under threat.”

Louise has been a community GP in Lewisham for more than 20 years, and is one of the candidates standing for the National Health Action (NHA) Party’s European election bid this May.

The NHA Party was formed in response to, and with the founding goal of reversing, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Bill to privatise the NHS. You might not have heard about them yet, but they’re determined to make waves between now and the 2015 general election, and have already gained support from high profile figures including comedian Rufus Hound and author Mark Haddon.

Rufus-150x150Rufus Hound, who will also run as an NHA candidate in the European election, told Feminist Times: “I cannot perceive of what human beings are built for if it isn’t working together. As such, the idea of banding together and creating a system where we look after each other when we get sick seems like one of civilisation’s crowning achievements.

“The fact that it’s currently being divvied up and sold off in the hope that no-one will notice sickens me to the pit of my stomach.

“I looked around for who was trying to draw attention to that fact (and it is a fact), and only one group of people seemed to be doing it. A group of health care professionals who didn’t want to be politicians, but realised that unless they became political, the NHS would die.

“Those folks were the National Health Action Party. Joining them wasn’t a choice – once I’d researched what’s being done to our free-at-the-point-of-delivery health service, it felt more like an obligation.

“Ultimately, I’m just some (very) minor celebrity, but because of the age in which I am a bit famous, I have a big reach – thanks to social media (well, just Twitter, to be honest).

“Knowing I have an opportunity to wake people up to the fact that the NHS is being stolen from us – and knowing that Big Media studiously ignores/obscures that truth – my wife and I decided we had a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to help. So I got involved.”

Meanwhile, in the living room of her southeast London home, Louise is holding fort about the destruction of her beloved National Health Service.

“When the [Health and Social Care] bill went through Parliament, Clive Peedell [Co-leader of the NHA and a consultant clinical oncologist], was so disgusted that he announced we were going to set up a party and stand against them – to fight the Coalition in the ballot box,” Louise explains.

“We’ve fought them every other way – we’ve fought through marches and demonstrations, leafleting and public meetings, and that wasn’t enough.”

As a political party fielding candidates, therefore, the party aims to broaden its reach and, as Louise adds: “if we get anybody elected that’s going to scare the bejesus out of them all.”

Currently, she believes the Coalition “think that the NHS is either not an election issue or that they’ll be able to twist it to suit their own agenda.”

But the opposition isn’t faring much better in her eyes either: “Labour’s been very equivocal about what they’re going to do. Andy Burnham is saying good things, but Ed Miliband is very weak on the NHS – weak on a lot of things.

“Whereas Labour is weak and equivocal and vacillating, I think the Tories are clear,” she says. “They’ve already said there won’t be an NHS after five years of a Tory government.”

This gets to the crux of Louise’s urgency about the situation. In her early teens, Louise was attracted to medicine by the idea of “helping people, putting myself to some kind of service and making the world a better place,” and a youthful idealism borne out of the injustices she was increasingly becoming aware of.

Growing up in Scotland, reading Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Spare Rib magazine as a teenager, Louise has always been political, describing herself as “a feminist and a socialist,” with an early interest in left politics and debating women’s issues.

As a medical student at Aberdeen University she got involved in the women’s action group, taking part in Reclaim The Night marches and attending many of the 1970s women’s movement conferences.

After graduating, Louise says: “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I was quite politically active.” As a result, her first graduate job was helping to set up the charity Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua – an organisation that raised money to send doctors and nurses to the Central American nation whose own National Health Service was, at the time, in its infancy.

Although work and family life later took priority over political activism, Louise remains firmly wedded to the belief that “we as a society [should] care for everybody who becomes sick, regardless of ability to pay, and that there should never, ever be any fear of illness from the point of view of ‘can I afford this?’”

For her, the NHS is a “great example of social solidarity, that as a society we stand together and help the weakest and most vulnerable, which should be preserved – not just because it sounds like a nice thought, but also because it actually works.”

Louise already has impressive form where public health campaigning is concerned, having founded and led the successful Save Lewisham Hospital campaign.

From an initial meeting of just 12 people in October 2012, the campaign gathered pace rapidly, with 700 people at the first public meeting, and a staggering turnout of 10,000 protestors for the first demonstration on a miserable day in November 2012.

“We told the police we thought there’d be 2,000 on the day, and that was being really ambitious,” Louise recalls. “Later on we began to get the feeling from doing a lot of street work, going out leafleting and petitioning, that lots of people were planning to come to the demo, so we then said to the police it might be more like 4,000 and the police went ‘nahhh’.”

She laughs: “So yeah, we had 10,000 people. It went with no problems though – the police didn’t need to worry about it.”

Louise’s relationship with the local community has clearly been a big part of her success so far. After her return from Nicaragua, Louise opted to enter general practice because it involved “a whole load of different conditions and problems, and also you were in it for the long haul with people; you become part of a community and get to know people.”

She describes her role as a “therapeutic relationship” between patients and a doctor they know and trust and, sitting with her, it’s not hard to imagine.

Louise’s rallying calls to action make her a powerful and inspiring speaker so, on the one hand, I can fully imagine her manning the barricades in the NHA Revolution; and yet, on the other hand, I can just as easily imagine feeling totally at ease with her doing a smear test or offering advice to an anxious new mum.

“There are a lot of positives about this sort of continuity of care, having a doctor that’s part of the community,” she says. Having been in the same practice for over 20 years, she adds: “I’ve known a lot of patients for many years; I’ve known generations.”

Louise believes that being able to rally the whole community in Lewisham was undoubtedly the key to their success in saving the hospital. “People will fight to defend tangible things that they risk losing,” she says, but is keen to stress the importance of outreach.

“We broke with the main left tradition which is about just talking to people who already agree with you and being snooty about people who happen to be in a faith group or small businesses,” she says.

“We’re not talking about right/left wing here – you’ve got to get out and reach out to people. I think if something matters, like the NHS, it matters to the vast majority of people, whatever their politics are. We kept it as broad as possible and I think that’s why we were successful.”

That same anti-sectarian attitude is carried over into NHA’s election campaign, which Louise says aims to target voters across the board. “People vote Tory or Labour or Lib Dem for all kinds of reasons. There are quite a lot of Conservative voters amongst the elderly, but they are the ones who are actually going to be affected most by the changes to the NHS,” she points out.

“We could definitely appeal to some Lib Dems because they let us down by supporting the Tories bringing in the Health and Social Care Act, and we could appeal to some Labour voters simply because Labour has had a bad track record on the NHS and privatisation, and it’s not speaking out strongly enough about it now.”

As a single-issue campaign with a relatively short-term ambition, the NHA’s biggest battle is convincing the voting public of the tangibility of their cause. “You’re going to lose your local hospital is something very real; what’s going to be happening to the NHS is not yet tangible – it’s still abstract in a way,” Louise says.

It’s particularly difficult to imagine how an MEP candidate standing on a solely NHS focused platform might be relevant on the European political stage, but Louise is, of course, one step ahead of sceptical voters.

“The reason Europe’s important is to do with the issue of the EU/US trade agreement. Most people fall asleep when you talk about this, but it’s not really about trade across borders – this is actually about companies being able to sue the government for any change in law which they think could harm their profits.”

Unless the NHS is exempt from that trade agreement, she explains, “It would make any privatisation of the NHS – which is happening now – irreversible.”

Louise is also keen to stress that the NHA would have plenty to offer the European Parliament on the broader issue of public health: “Europe has a huge amount of jurisdiction on things that relate to health – not just competition law and the possibility of this EU/US trade agreement.

“Europe also legislates around things like the environment, pollution, it regulates medicines and doctors, it regulates doctors’ working hours, it regulates around food labelling and food safety, which is hugely important.”

Beyond the European election in May, she’s equally confident that the NHA can put the privatisation of our health service on the UK’s political agenda ahead of 2015, pointing out that none of the major political parties had environmental policies on their agenda until the Greens appeared.

“One MP is enough to give you a credibility and a voice,” she says, “and someone like Caroline Lucas is very strong and gets that message over amazingly powerfully.

“We need a hundred of Caroline Lucas, but even one can do a lot. If we had one MP or one MEP who’s there on the issue of the NHS, we would be being invited onto Newsnight and being taken seriously – this is the biggest piece of legislation that’s transforming the NHS and the media is hardly covering it.”

Given control of a newspaper publishing empire for the day, Louise’s front-page headline would be simple: “Your NHS is being privatised”, followed by four bullet points laying out why people should care:

“1. It costs so much more to run a marketised system so that money is taken away from frontline care.

“2. It reduces quality because private companies are looking to make money. When 60% of healthcare is staff, the only way to make money is to cut staff, and then the quality goes down.

“3. It leads to fragmentation – most of the gains in cancer, stroke and heart attack care in this country in the last decade or two have come from collaborative work; you can’t have collaboration if you’re all supposed to be competing with each other.

“4. Private companies cherry pick the profitable areas so it undermines and undercuts the NHS, so it actually starts to lead to a breakdown of NHS services, you end up with hospitals in deficit and people want to close them.

“We’re already one of the best healthcare systems in the world – the most cost effective – so it should be improved,” she adds. “It’s not perfect, there are things we could improve, but you don’t improve something by destroying it and then completely rebuilding it from the bottom up with a completely different, untested system.”

Louise’s worst-case scenario is that the UK will end up with “a very divergent two tier system, like they do in America, where you’ve got a basic safety net system, which is not very good, for the very poor and a private healthcare system for the people who are better off.”

This same scenario is part of what drives Rufus Hound’s passion for the NHA: “Healthcare doesn’t work if it’s a market,” he says.

“We live in an age where the political panacea is privatisation. Markets are good at governing all sorts of things – but medicine isn’t one of them. You don’t choose to have chemotherapy if you have cancer. You choose to die or fight. Literally a life or death decision. That’s why marketised medicine is so intrinsically unfair – the desperation that fuels the demand means that the suppliers can charge whatever the hell they like.

“In America – the reigning champion of perverted private medicine – the leading cause of bankruptcy is illness. Even people with health insurance end up broken by medical bills, often due to their “excess” payment.

“The NHS isn’t perfect,” he adds, “but it’s a damn site more efficient and better for us than the alternatives – or at least it would be if it weren’t being vilified by the economic vampires hoping to sell it off to their millionaire mates.”

So what alternative would we see in a world where Dr Louise Irvine was Secretary of State for Health? A return to a healthcare system more like the model they have in Scotland, for a start, she says, where “health boards work out what the [community’s] health needs are and they fund the providers to provide it – which is the model we used to have before Thatcher started bringing in the purchaser/provider split.

“In the bigger picture, I think austerity has been terrible for the poor and that has mental and physical health implications,” she adds.

“I would do something about staff pay and improving staff morale, and we would look at the wider social determinants of health – things like food labelling, housing, some of the social issues like benefits.

“We’d certainly reverse this whole awful Atos work capacity assessment, which is just so oppressive to people with long term conditions and disabilities – that would have to go,” she adds.

Realistically, she acknowledges, we’re not going to see an NHA Government taking power in 2015; instead, the party’s ambition is to “have a huge influence and make this an election issue.

“And, if we get anybody elected, to put the fear of whatever into these politicians – they cannot continue to destroy our NHS and get away with it.”

Find out more about the NHA Party here or follow them on Twitter @NHAparty. You can also follow Dr Louise Irvine @drmarielouise and Rufus Hound @rufushound.

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Open letter to journalists: middle class strippers – it’s neo-liberalism, stupid

Every six months for the last three years, the press have got hold of research undertaken by Teela Sanders and I on the apparent proliferation of the stripping industry in the UK.

Despite the multiple angles of the research and the findings that we published, there is a fixation with the idea of middle class women taking their clothes off for money. This is despite the fact that we reported high levels of financial exploitation, mixed feelings about the working conditions in clubs and, in many cases, declining conditions in the industry, and the relationship of labour in this industry to the privatisation of education, declining real wages and a hostile labour market. Clearly the material conditions of women’s working lives do not make for good copy.

See for example:

Devalued, deskilled and diversified: Explained the proliferation of the UK strip industry.

The Regulatory Dance: Lap Dancing in the UK.

In response to these repetitive requests for statements and interviews by journalists who inaccurately plagiarise each other’s stories, leading to dramatic inaccuracies, hyperbole and moral panic, I write this Open Letter:

Dear Journalist,

Thank you for your questions. With regards to why middle class women work in the industry, of course it is money that shapes their decision; how could it not be in a world of wage labour? The point is that it is not solely money.

Middle class women strip for much the same reasons that working class women strip. Most middle class women who sell their labour in the strip industry do so because the UK is an increasingly precarious place in which to live and to sell your labour. Most do not select dancing as a career over others (though some do), but they may strip in order to purchase the credentials they need from a neo-liberalised education system, in order to compete in an increasingly hostile labour market. They sell their labour here, in the short term, to finance long term desires for security in a world in which basic securities are being stripped away, driven by principles that your newspapers often play a large and insidious role in promoting.

Middle class women are selling their labour in the strip industry due to the absence of decent, well-paid part time work in other parts of the labour market. Middle class women are selling their labour in this industry because the UK, and particularly London, is an hourglass economy in which there are high paid, high status jobs at the top and the opposite at the bottom, with little in between. These women are seeking to escape the bottom half of the hourglass and make it into the top, a place increasingly reserved for the existing elite.

The flexibility of stripping enables women to generate an income while undertaking a degree, participating in an internship or topping up their other low wage job. Some middle class women strip because these are what jobs are left for you when when the welfare state retreats – middle class or otherwise. These middle class women strip because when real wages fall to their level of a decade previously, nurses and social workers (those overpaid and greedy public sector workers) have to top up their wages in order to survive.

Some middle class women strip because this is the job they have always wanted to do and they enjoy the sexual attention they receive. Many want to resist the oppressive temporality and austere cultural norms attached to the 9-5 job, preferring instead to engage in work that can be experienced, to some degree, as leisure. Many young people like to work in the night-time economy, which transgresses many of the rules of day time work.

Some women embrace the sense of community they feel, in contrast to the reactionary politics of the office. Some resist the work ethic that increasingly encourages people to be their job, to work until they collapse at the expense of their health, their families and their social well-being, instead preferring to relegate work to a separate sphere of their life which does not define them or consume all of their time and energy.

It is for all of these reasons that middle class women strip. But I wonder whether we are asking the right question. The most incisive question, I feel, is not why middle class women are stripping, but why we are so concerned with middle class women stripping? If stripping is to be condemned – which is the subtext of your question – then why can we accept the idea of working class women stripping, but are horrified when the spectre looms for middle class women?

I hope this helps. Do let me know if you have any other questions.



Dr Kate Hardy.  Feminist, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at The University of Leeds.
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Top 10 Shit Valentine’s Gifts

Valentine’s Day is a minefield of cheesy cards and shit, overpriced gifts. We trawled a number of well-known gift websites looking for the worst Valentine’s gifts on sale this year to bring you the official Feminist Times guide to what not to buy your beloved, with a little help from some of our favourite funny women. (Obviously Membership to Feminist Times is the ultimate gift of love for the woman in your life.)

Here they are, in no particular order, with comments from Sara Pascoe, Danielle Ward, Arabella Weir, Kate Smurthwaite, Shazia Mirza and Rosie Wilby…


1. Patronise AND baffle this Valentine’s by suggesting your love should wash more. And smell more breakfasty – Sara Pascoe (@sarapascoe)
Toast and jam body wash set – £6.95




2. For when he really, truly doesn’t want you to think he’s having an affair – Danielle Ward (@captainward)
Monogamy Game – A Hot Affair… with your partner – £24.99

Monogamy Game



3. Some say our culture treats women’s bodies as objects. Prove them all wrong by wrapping yourself in a large bow – Sara Pascoe (@sarapascoe)
Naughty Knot – £4.85




4. Nothing says romance like a ‘gift’ that’s both hugely impractical and extremely uncomfortable – though its benefits are evidently all for him – Arabella Weir (@ArabellaWeir)
Candy Bra and G String – £8.95




5. He wanted to give you chocolates but he knew you’d moan about being fat all night afterwards, so you only got one – and it’s crafted from solid gold. A bargain at just £79! – Sara Pascoe (@sarapascoe)
My Last Rolo Gold Love Token – £79




6. The perfect gift for the woman whose eyelashes are right next to her vagina. Now try winking at strangers on the bus!! – Kate Smuthwaite (@Cruella1)
Mascara Vibrator – £24.99




7. Roses are Red, Violets are Blue
I can’t be bothered to write you a poem
This pre-printed one in a tin will do

Sara Pascoe (@sarapascoe)
I Love You Gift Tin – contains: presentation tin, love declaration, love poem scroll, 3 x scented candles, semi precious stone heart pendant, love chocolates, scented rose petals – all for £19.99

lovers-gift-tin-2 copy



8. Chocolate? That could get messy. I haven’t got time for cleaning, I’ve got to get to the boardroom. I’d rather use a cucumber and get one of my five a day – Shazia Mirza (@shaziamirza1)
Clone a Willy Chocolate Moulding Kit – £19.49




9. Nothing says romance like a piece of crap you don’t need with a pun on it – Sara Pascoe (@sarapascoe)
Personalised “I think you’re great” mini cheese grater – £10




10. Sex cereal? ‘Surely this doesn’t work’, you say! So, as a controlled experiment, my girlfriend had ‘for her’ and I tried ‘for him’ blend. To be fair, my penis has been unusually sensitive since – Rosie Wilby (@rosiewilby)
Sex Cereal – available in “for him” and “for her” – £9.99 per packet




For a less shit alternative, take your date to see Sara Pascoe’s stand-up show Sara Pascoe Vs The Truth on 14 February from 8pm at Cambridge Junction.

Or, for some belated Valentine’s laughs, catch Rosie Wilby’s stand-up show Nineties Woman on 25 February from 7.30pm at Rich Mix London.


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Young mums are Stratford’s biggest Olympic losers

Wherever there’s an Olympics happening, BBC’s Panorama send in their top corruption-uncoverer John Sweeney. Just last week Sochi was “Sweenied” when he reported the Russian Games was considered by some to be the most corrupt ever. Six years ago he did something very similar in China. However in 2012 there was a distinct lack of Sweeney in Stratford, East London. Two years later, there is a group of young mums in a hostel in E15 who might just want John to take a little look around, because their reality of the London Olympic legacy, and so-called regeneration, is social cleansing.

It’s so easy to level corruption charges at our former Cold War enemies with their human rights violations, low levels of democracy and the disappearance and imprisonment of dissidents. After all, while the Olympic Park’s nearby Tower Hamlet’s council is a staple of Private Eye‘s ‘Rotten Boroughs‘, I think I’d get away with performing a Punk Prayer in St John’s on Stratford High Street without too much impact on my freedom.

It’s so much harder to look in the mirror and see where our own games could have been more transparent – less generous to big billion pound business and kinder to the people who just happened to be born in Stratford, like the gorgeous little babies of the mums in Focus E15 Mothers. There’s no better way to explain their situation than letting the women speak for themselves.

Focus E15 Mothers’ statement:
We are a mix of mothers and mothers-to-be who have lived in the E15 hostel from a few months to 3 years. Having been told this would only be temporary accommodation, we are no closer to finding permanent housing and now Newham council has stopped funding the mothers and baby unit and those of us who have been in the hostel for over six months have been served with a possession order with a date of 20 October.

We have been told we will not be offered council housing but that we will be offered private rented accommodation from accredited landlords outside of London in places like Hastings, Birmingham and Manchester. If we refuse this offer, we will be classed as making ourselves intentionally homeless and face temporary accommodation with little protection from eviction and no guarantee of a long-term solution from the council. Also if we chose to rent privately we are not entitled to get sufficient help with deposits which we cannot afford ourselves.

We want secure and suitable housing for mothers in east London!

Every Saturday they take to the streets of Stratford in what they describe as ‘meetings’. They hang up banners with slogans that say “Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism”, “Caution, Social Cleansing in Progress” and “Don’t Make Our Babies Homeless”. On Facebook they share photos of ex-council housing in their area boarded up; ““no housing” my foot” says a commenter underneath the photo of a huge tower block.

And is that not the very essence of uncovering corruption? Being told one thing by the powers that be and then seeing evidence that proves it’s a lie. Being told there’s no housing while the Olympic village lays empty, no lights on. Being told there’s no council housing while estates are gradually boarded up and packaged up for redevelopment. Property prices rising high because Waitrose and John Lewis followed the IOC into town, all the while being told it will be easier to just go to Hastings, and if you don’t you’re purposefully making yourself homeless – that you, the single mum and your baby, deserve to be on the street.

I didn’t go to the Olympics when it came to London. I left and went to Camp Bestival instead, which has more of the sporting activities I excel at. Even hundreds of miles away in a Dorset valley, I and the thousands with me were moved by the Danny Boyle spectacular that was projected from the festival stage. The opening ceremony’s most touching part, the part that made me cry, was the Mary Poppins-style tribute to Great Ormond St Hospital and the NHS, with dancing nurses looking after children who were jumping on flying beds.

Reality is no magical fairy tale; there’s no super nannies blowing in on the wind to comfort the anxious mums of Focus E15 Mothers. They are the casualties of our Olympics and while Panorama waxes on about Sochi we must remember that our own backyard is not squeeky clean. The legacy of a transparent, caring Olympics should always be that local people will benefit, that their home town will be improved for them and their children to enjoy, but in Stratford those children are no longer welcome.

Photo: Lorraine Murphy

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How to make the unhappiest town happy

Standing at the bar of Bedford’s West Indian Social & Cultural Society, I’ve been talking to the Windrush generation about the boxes of records they’ve all got stashed in the loft or the garage. They have original Blue Beat singles, old Trojan tunes, things with the red Island Records logo. Next door, their grandchildren play MP3s on a big, bass-heavy sound-system.

I’m in Bedford because the Office for National Statistics decided last year that it was the unhappiest place in the country. Bedford Creative Arts have commissioned me to look at what makes Bedford unhappy, and see if – in three short months – I can change it. The project is called, simply, Bedford Happy.

Bedford was built by the Saxon chief Beda, around a crossing on the River Ouse. It’s always been a place of crossing, of coming together of the tribes, and as such is incredibly open to different cultures – just a few doors down from the West Indian club is the Polish Club, and opposite that, the Italian Club which serves a wicked short, black coffee.

Bedford has the third largest Italian community in Britain, behind London and Manchester. That’s because the Bedford-based London Brick Company found a skilled workforce in southern Italy in the 1950s, when they needed enough bricks to rebuild bomb-damaged London. The brickworks followed it up with a recruitment campaign in India, and in 1960 the Indian Workers’ Welfare & Cultural Association was set up in the town.

And that ever-changing mix is what makes Bedford really interesting. It’s a town of contrast and change. There’s the area around the bus station, which feels like an unloved corner of North London, populated by fast food, cheap supermarkets and cab firms. And a few minutes’ walk away are the clean, elegant streets leading down to the river’s Embankment, where the water is often alive with rowers from Bedford’s four private schools. The parents of the pupils there live in big villas around the grand, Victorian-landscaped Bedford Park where every Saturday morning 250 or more people turn on their smartphones and log on to the Parkrun app.

Every group – ‘West Indian’ or ‘Italian’ or ‘Rowing Club’ or ‘Parkrun’ – changes the town. For generations, people have arrived and felt they have the power to do things for themselves. People have started offbeat arts organisations and oddball religions (the Panacea Society who saved an end-of-terrace house for Christ’s return deserve an article all of their own). They’ve founded their own schools and social clubs – to get a few people together, talk about your shared interest and make something happen is the Bedford way.

That approach is perfectly illustrated by what made me notice Bedford in the first place. Two strangers, Kayte Judge and Erica Roffe, started a conversation about the town’s empty shops on Facebook, created a project called We Are Bedford and spent a year activating empty spaces. Their approach is one I see across the entire country. People are tackling local problems for themselves.

Collaborate, create the smallest structure you need to make things happen, try and test your ideas where people can see them, and use that experience to decide what to do next. It’s a refreshing alternative to the way councils or charities work – endless meetings, everything in place to blunt the sharp edges of any risk, and nobody responsible for their own actions.

It’s exactly what Clay Shirky wrote about in 2008; people are organising without organisations. The tools we have literally at our fingertips, a smart phone that lets us access social media, mean we can be the change we want to see. We can form loose, agile collaborations and tackle problems. I recently listed 100 such projects on my company’s blog.

The actor Peter Coyote, looking back to the 1960s, said, ‘If we had any belief, it was that a man’s vision is his responsibility. If you had an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power exposed the shallowness of endless theorizing and debate. Visions became real by being acted out, and once real could serve as inspiration and free food for the public imagination.’

It’s no coincidence that the internet lets us do that so quickly, when the people that built it were Coyote’s contemporaries. The 60s generation have given us the tools to make change endlessly, easily possible – to make revolution an everyday thing.

Dan is a social artist and writer living in Margate. His work is about people and places. He is interested in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces, and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. . In 2012, he was included in the Time Out and Hospital Club’s Culture 100, a list of the most inspiring and influential people in the UK’s creative industries. Find out more at www.danthompson.co.uk

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Your dinner’s been spiked

Everyone loves fish and chips, right? Hot and battery, the vinegar fumes gently scorching your eyeballs. Or maybe you’re more of a sushi person, riding the Yo Sushi conveyor belts with raw abandon. Or perhaps you’re more of a shellfish type, happiest scooping mussels from a garlicky bucket or ripping the exoskeleton off some hapless marine insect.

Whatever your inclination, you’re not alone in your fish love. The average person eats around 17kg of fish each year – that’s equivalent to consuming a 4-year-old human child, and we’ve all done that. Today we’re sliding twice as much fish down our oily gullets as we were in the 1960s. Kudos everyone.

Fish is a great source of protein so we should all be extremely chuffed with ourselves. It’s also a fabulous source of flame retardants, which is excellent news if you’re a sofa.

A new study reveals that plastic in the ocean is breaking down into microscopic particles which are harmful enough in themselves, but which also act like tiny lifeboats for grisly toxins from industrial byproducts like PBDE (the aforementioned flame retardant) and PCB (a coolant). The toxins clamber aboard and drift aimlessly, like Robert Redford in All is Lost, until devoured by marine life, and voila – it’s in the food chain.

Pollutants become more concentrated the further you move up the food chain. The tiddlers ingest the plastic and are in turn consumed in large numbers by their predators. These predators are then consumed by a higher level predator (it’s the circle of life, haven’t you seen The Lion King?) and so on, right up to the herb encrusted tuna that’s steaming fragrantly on your plate. I’m afraid someone’s spiked supper.

Many plastics contain chemicals already known to affect human and animal health, mainly affecting the endocrine system. Some contain toxic monomers, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems, but the actual role of plastic waste in these conditions is uncertain and there currently isn’t enough evidence to start splashing Daily Mail style hysteria across the globe. But scarily, even less is known about the effects of the toxic hitchhikers.

Some bonkers cosmetic products come with ready-made teeny tiny plastic particles. Exfoliants, shower gels and even some toothpastes contain micro-beads so small they are designed to go down the plughole and straight out to sea. Many companies such as Unilever have pledged to exorcise the evil beads, but not until 2015, so the clever people at Beat the Microbead have stepped in and compiled a nifty list of products for you to avoid  until they’re happily bead-free.

But all this is just the tip of the plasberg. Plastic production has increased 560 fold in just over 60 years and if we continue at this rate we’ll be dumping 220 million tons of the stuff every year by 2025. It doesn’t take a scientist to work out that this can’t be good news for man nor beast.

And it hangs around for so long too. In 2005 a piece of plastic found in an albatross’s stomach bore a serial number traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944. It’s hard not to be a tiny bit impressed by this plucky plastic.

That is until you consider its role in the deaths of hundreds of species – fish, birds, dolphins, whales – who die of starvation, their stomachs bursting with plastic water bottles, carrier bags and the like; or those strangled, poisoned or cut up by our waste.

Something to think about the next time you gob a fish finger. I really hope I haven’t spoiled your appetite.


Rachel Salvidge is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, with a background in book publishing. Find out more @RachSalv.

Photo: Dan Century

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What women really worry about 2014: The stats

“Be a Better You” – Red magazine.

“A New Year, a New You” – Get Slim magazine.

“How to Get July Skin in January” – Elle.

If an alien visited earth this month and read our women’s magazines, they’d be left with the impression that all women really want is to lose weight, unwrinkle their skin, look different, act different and buy new shoes.

They’d get the distinct impression that transformation is transactional and that happiness can be bought in the form of a night cream. ET would think that, for this planet’s women, a new year means a new you, and that little else matters. But the relentless magazine headlines about aesthetic New Year’s resolutions don’t reflect *all* of the things that women really want.

As part of the Lodestone Political Survey, prepared by Survation, we polled over 1,000 women about what they really worry about and what they really want. When asked ‘what is the thing that most worries you at the moment?’, only 2% of these women answered by saying “the way I look”, 2% said “not having enough me time”, and 1% said “not fitting in”.

In contrast the top five responses were:

“My children’s/grandchildren’s future”

“Not being able to afford to pay the bills”

“Not having enough money as I’d like to have”

“Getting or being unwell”

“Becoming or being unemployed”

Earthly concerns, rooted in the grind of daily life, family love and economic realities come way above the worries that fuel New Year aesthetic transformation fantasies.

With women earning an average of 15% less than men, the prevalence of these everyday concerns shouldn’t be a surprise. Women are likely to have fewer financial assets and are more likely to live in poverty, especially in older age.

These earthly concerns and aspirations were reflected in the answers women gave when we asked them what they would like their lives to be like in 2020. For example, a 47-year old gardener from Wales said: “I would like less stress on my finances and would like to feel safer and more secure than I do now.”

Similarly, a 43 year old office worker said that, in 2020, she would like to be: “happy, calm and secure; much the same as now but without the anxiety of worrying about bills and expenses being higher than our income,” and an unemployed 20-year old from the West Midlands said she would like to be: “better off financially [and] I would also like to have a job.”

A 61 year old woman from Northamptonshire told us that, in 2020, “I want to be able to use my heating without worry about the bill, I would like to have enough pension money to afford a taxi or a haircut, I would like to eat meat.”

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about having “the right haircut”; they’re about being able to afford a haircut.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “preparing the perfect meal”; they’re about being able to afford to eat meat once in a while.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “having a stylish home”; they’re about being able to heat her home.

Some of the answers women gave are heartbreaking in their honesty and it’s telling that they mentioned debt 117 times, while make-up was mentioned a grand total of one time.

The fantasy of aesthetic personal transformation helps to sell magazines, shift products and help us cope with everyday life by giving us a moment of escapism. At times, I’ve found the New Year articles, inspiring and interesting, and I’ve enjoyed looking through magazines with my sister and friends. At other times, I’ve found the articles at this time of year condescending, simplistic, formulaic and repetitive.

The key point is this: not all of the things that women really want can be bought in a shop. Not all of the things we really want can be achieved in the gym, the bathroom or the beautician’s. Many of the women we surveyed talked about their concerns about personal finances, work and the future of the economy, and when we asked women “what is the one thing you would most like politicians to focus more on doing?”, the top responses were “ensuring we have a stable economy” and “working to create more jobs”.

While many magazines pump out advice on action we can take as individuals to transform the way we look, we should consider spending more time thinking about the action we can take collectively to tackle the big issues. New Year, new you? No thanks. New Year, new thinking? Yes please.

Fran O’Leary is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone. She is writing in a personal capacity. Follow @FranOLeary

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Happy New You: mopping up the fall-out from enforced gluttony

If you’re anything like me, you dislike nothing more than thinking you’ve undertaken a decision of your own free volition, only to discover later that you’re merely a corporate lemming. It’s moderately fun when you’re in your twenties and think you might be part of some sort of culture-shattering zeitgeist and then, when you’re about twenty eight, you have the crushing realisation that nothing you’ve ever thought has ever been original or ground-breaking. That even when you try to belong to an ‘underground’ alternative movement, said movement has been carved specifically to lure people like you into its clutches by a money-making chain that ultimately ends with someone like Simon Cowell.

Apologies, I appear to be having an existential crisis. Just before I go and stand on the balcony and contemplate my life for a bit, I wanted to talk about the worst possible example of our life decisions being manipulated by ‘the man’: The New Year Diet.

Every year, around about November 15th, the entire Western World embarks on a gigantic communal binge/purge cycle. First, we’re urged from all quarters to stuff ourselves to the gills in celebration of the major winter religious festivals, with every bus stop, billboard, website, television advert and mainstream publication imploring us to “treat ourselves” because, after all, it is Christmas – the one time of year when it’s more than acceptable to put Baileys instead of milk on your cornflakes in the morning.

For this period of unadulterated hedonistic indulgence, however, there will be a penance: you will hate your greedy self. Not only after the fact, in the bleak, cold days of early January, but a little bit while you’re actually doing it. Christmas is also the season of the ‘little black party dress’ and we are bombarded with pictures of celebrities wearing outfits comprising solely of sequins, tinfoil and other materials which look deeply unflattering on anyone with more than an ounce of body fat.

It’s ‘forced fun’, is what it is. I don’t know about you, but my idea of ‘ultimate fun’ is spending an entire week shagging with wild abandon whilst David Bowie’s back catalogue plays in the background at silly volumes. It is NOT standing in some God-awful bar-chain with people from the office whilst wearing a filmsy paper ‘crown’, making small talk about how it’s quite mild for this time of year, forcing down a mushroom vol-au-vent and a glass of sherry and attempting to convince myself that it’s “okay because it’s Christmas”.

On boxing day, we survey the torn shreds of wrapping paper, resembling the remnants of our self-esteem as they lay strewn about the living room, and we listen to every other human in our lives bemoan their expanding waist lines and pledge to “go on a diet in the New Year”. And again, we get swept up in the hysteria because this Christmas just gone, which was supposed to be a celebration of everything that was glorious in our respective existences, was in fact a gigantic anti-climax and if we want next year to be different; if we want it to be the glamorous, unadulterated thrill-ride the world has told us it should be, then surely it is our duty to ensure that in 2014 we are as thin and gorgeous as possible, in keeping with the overall theme of the occasion?

So as we begin 2014, gyms, celebrity fitness DVDs and diet clubs promise a New Year: New You! as they swoop in to mop up the emotional fall-out of our enforced gluttony.

Except it’s all bollocks.

A significant chunk of Western society’s corporate machine is founded on the phenomenon of the yoyo diet. They WANT you to regain that weight. That’s why diets are so miserable and unsustainable. There’s shady mutual sponsorship happening all the time between the fitness and fast food industries purely for this reason. They depend on our brains being a contradiction of the desire to eat tasty things and the desire to look like someone who has never so much as whiffed a Jaffa Cake. If you diet, make no mistake, you are a cog in that machine. A machine which is fuelled by fear, insecurity, and a constructed and entirely unrealistic beauty paradigm designed to keep us prisoners of our own feelings of unworthiness.

So, this New Year, if you must make a resolution, resolve to start listening to your body. It knows what it needs. Always has. You were born with an innate understanding of when you were hungry, when you were full, and what food and exercise you needed to do to remain healthy. Over time we have confused ourselves by listening to people who have found solace in a prescribed regime or, worse still, are making money out of it.

Your body is a glorious, self-regulating organism. Trust it.

Natasha Devon is Director of the Education Program at Body Gossip. She is Cosmopolitan Magazine Ultimate Woman of the Year, 2012, in Ernst & Young’s Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs 2013, Mental Health Association ‘Business Hero’ Award Winner 2012 and Shortlisted for UK Parliament First Annual Body Confidence Awards. Follow her at @NatashaDevonBG

Photo: Kristina D. C. Hoeppner

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#IDontBuyIt: Feminism For Sale

It’s official: we have our own place in the history books. 2013 has seen a fourth wave of feminism rising up seemingly from still waters; a glorious surge of intersectionality, gobbiness and web-savviness. And it’s great. We’re great.

No More Page 3’s 130,000 signatories; the Everyday Sexism project; Leyla Hussein and the anti-FGM campaigners. All the successes too: the report abuse button on Twitter, the banning of sexist hate speech on Facebook, the Co-Ops refusal to stock lads mags. It’s all been so ruddy, bloody great.

But all waves, no matter how magnificent, have to break. Fourth wave feminism looks pretty powerful at the moment, but it’s in danger of petering out; a sad slap against some unshiftable rocks. Why? Because of how great we’re being – and because of who’s noticing that, and how.

Become trendy and well-liked and you don’t just attract the dazzling smile of Nigella, but the fanged grin of suited advertising executives. Throughout 2013, for every hard-won feminist success there’s been an easily churned out piece of advertising seeking to co-opt an entire movement for the purpose of selling tat.

Dozens of brands are lining up to align themselves with feminist awesomeness. Old hands Dove surpassed themselves this year with a piece of loft-set sobbing professing to tell us we’re all beautiful but really just blaming women – rather than, I dunno, the multi-billion pound beauty industry – for their own negative self-esteem. Pantene, meanwhile, released an ad only last week which urges us not to be constrained by sexist labels as long as we have shiny hair.

It seems obvious what these adverts are doing. Apart from selling goop, they’re co-opting feminism into the very thing – capitalist patriarchy – which means feminism needs to exist. You cannot market unnecessary standards of beauty for the benefit of a profit margin in a feminist way. Pantene and Dove have no wish for us to feel comfortable in our own skin because if we did we’d stop buying their evil soapy wares.

I say it only seems obvious what they’re doing because apparently it isn’t. Both of those adverts were created on the other side of the globe but have gone viral and reached my newsfeed because of the endorsement of people – fellow feminists – who should bloody well know better.

Like long-geeky teenagers who’ve started being invited to cool parties, us fourth-wavers are so happy to just to be spoken to by mainstream media that we don’t question it. We just beam toothily, share with our entire friends list and go on our merry way. If we get the chance we’re even making the damn things ourselves: Vagenda and this very publication teamed up with ELLE to “rebrand” feminism; an exercise that produced two adverts which didn’t mention the “F-word” at all and sparked a load of Twitter in-fighting which alienated as many possible feminists as the campaigns interested in the first place.

Being this in love with being cool, right down to the cost of commodification, turns feminism into a “thing”. Feminism is not a “thing”. It is not a trend. It is not something that can be owned. It is not something that can be summed up on a T-shirt, in a glossy ad, or in a music video. Play into that and you create a set definition of what it is, and who we are, and you can wave goodbye to intersectionality, diversity of opinion, or even just a nice level playing field where we’re all respectful to one another.

Want to know what happens when people see feminism as a badge? You get Lily Allen bewildered that a song about equality can attract ire for objectifying black women, because she and her director think that the only box she has to tick to fight for equality is to be witty about sexualisation.

You get well-meaning, if oft-aggravating, people like Vagenda and Caitlin Moran being either attacked mercilessly or fawned over like messiahs because we’re so used to having leaders that we create them within our own movement.

You get awful in-fighting because other people’s feminism differs ever so slightly from the set idea we each have of it, and Twitter wars because we’re all so eager for a “platform” in the capitalist media that online activism has become a desperate scramble for status.

In short you get a load of shallow crap that means we concentrate more on fitting into the system oppressing us than on dismantling it. This isn’t a plea for us to campaign mercilessly for an anti-consumerist, anarchist commune society where we replace money with leaves (wooden tokens work much better), or, heaven for-fucking-bid, for us to go nestle back under the told-you-so wings of our second and third wave mothers, but rather for us to be careful.

Feminism does need a change, and to keep changing. We need to be more intersectional, more inclusive, more open to those not in the Waitrose ranks of the middle class. But there’s a difference between being open to change and being rebranded, a difference between being popular and being cool. If we remember that, we can keep this wave going for as long as possible – and when it breaks, it might actually have done some damage.

Rebecca Winson is the News Editor for For Books’ Sake, the feminist webzine dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by women. Find out more @rebeccawinson

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#IDontBuyIt: Consuming the Season – gender, debt & credit


Joni Seager, author of the international Atlas of Women, and Graphic Designer Lucia Ricci team up as ThinkAgainGraphics to bring you a brilliant new look at women and spending.

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#IDontBuyIt: UnElfy working conditions under capitalism

Feminist Times interviewed 19-year-old Annabel*, a whistleblowing Elf, for an insight into life working for Father Christmas at a much-loved festive family attraction.

It’s a busy time of year for Santa’s little helpers so we caught up with Annabel while she was on her way to work in the grotto, on a chilly December morning, to find out what her job entails.

“My role as an elf involves greeting and memorising the names of the children before taking them and their guardians to meet Father Christmas,” she explains.

“On the way I try my best to get them excited about meeting him by asking about their day, what their favourite part was, and what they want for Christmas. It’s really important to involve the adults as well,” she adds, “as they’re also here for the experience, even if it was booked as a treat for the children.”

Annabel does this through “small references to the ‘human world’ – so if the child says their favourite activity that day was ice skating, you can joke that you won the gold bell for ice skating in ‘elf olympics’ 1888, or that you’re so clumsy Father Christmas won’t let you on the ice.”

For her, working with children is the highlight of her job: “What I love is being able to help make children continue to believe in the magic of Christmas for at least another year, and watching their faces light up as they meet the man who brings them so much joy every Christmas day.

“I love it when you get a little girl or boy at around 10 years old, who still deeply believes in Father Christmas and is genuinely wrapped up in the whole experience.”

The second aspect of Annabel’s job is taking photos of the families with Father Christmas, helping hand out and restock the gift throughout the day, and preparing the house for routine evening inspections.

“Photos with Santa aren’t included in the price of the ticket and must be purchased separately,” she tells us. “Filming and photos, other than those taken ‘professionally’, are not allowed within Father Christmas’s house.”

As an actress, Annabel says working as an elf for nine hours a day is a very full-on role: “You must always be prepared with an answer no matter what the question, always be bouncy and full of energy – nobody wants to talk to a grumpy elf.

“You can NEVER break character, even if an adult asks your age or what you do when you’re not ‘elfing’. You can make up any age – I usually say 178 – and you have to act confused: “what do you mean when I’m not at work? We elves are always hard at work making toys for all the good boys and girls all over the world!” and “why, we live here of course! All of us together in this forest – in fact, there are many elves napping nearby because they’ve been so hard at work making toys for you, so we have to be very quiet now so we don’t wake them up!”

In fact, it’s not so far from the truth: “My least favourite part of the job is the hours – roughly 10 hours a day with only two unpaid half hour breaks whilst being on your feet all day, going back and forth,” Annabel says.

She started work with Father Christmas at the end of November, after two days of training, and had a total of four days off before starting a two-week stint of 11am-9pm days, leading up to Christmas. Understandably, she’s exhausted.

“Then there’s the lack of pay,” Annabel adds. “For over 21s it’s an average of £7.07 an hour and for under 21s (like me) it’s roughly £5.54. Being separated by age when both age groups are doing the same job and the same amount of work is extremely frustrating and generally unfair.

“Considering being an elf in these circumstances could fall under the category of immersive theatre, in the opinion of myself and all my co-workers, we are grossly underpaid.” The Independent Theatre Council recommends a minimum salary of £420 a week; even at 9 hours a day (with one hour of unpaid breaks), 7 days a week, Annabel only gets £349.02 gross. Santa how could you?!

Annabel’s biggest disillusionment lies with the management’s capitalistic drive to maximise profits at any cost. “I genuinely believe that the owners started the company with a view to create a magical experience for families and children,” she says.

“But due to the nature of business, various things inevitably falter due to costs and profit margins – the little things can often be lost, like a serious lack of training and employees not being trained to the highest standard.

“A full time worker was asked to cover for an understudy because of so many people quitting due to poor working conditions and then wasn’t trained properly in that area,” she tells us.

“Very long shifts, with so few breaks, in such a physical job can be mentally and physically draining, causing strain on the employees, both among themselves and the managers.”

Although Annabel enjoys the job itself, she reveals that other elves aren’t so lucky: “Elves from other sections of the Christmas experience, whose roles allow less freedom than my own, have all expressed great frustration and stress at the monotonous repetitions that their jobs entail, and are emotionally worn out – often to the point of exhaustion – causing many to either quit or consider quitting.”

And despite the company’s additional charges for photographs with Father Christmas, and a gift shop full of “extremely overpriced gifts”, Annabel says she and many of her co-elves remain “underappreciated as staff and grossly underpaid.”

A kid might think of being an elf as a dream job – even as adults, many of us spend a good afternoon “elfing” ourselves and our colleagues. In reality, the modern workplace offers instability, lack of training and unpaid breaks. For many workers Christmas really means retail prices high, staff wages low, and feeling that you are totally unappreciated. Santa’s grotto is a 3D Christmas metaphor for life under grotty capitalism.

It would be nice to think of Santa’s workshop as being more like a cooperative and less like a sweatshop. Come on Santa, if Christmas is about giving and not receiving, as a boss like many others, you can afford to be a bit more generous…

*Not her real name

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#IDontBuyIt: Profile – Echo

Our economic system is in trouble. Despite an apparent recovery and booming house prices, debt is rising, wages are stagnant and statistics show women are being harder hit.

It’s easy to feel depressed about the spiralling cost of living and growing economic inequality, but since I started working on Echo I’ve been excited to discover that there are alternatives.

Echo is an Economy of Hours, a marketplace without the money. Our members trade the skills, services or resources they have for those they need, using a currency called Echoes. The exchange rate is simple: 1 hour = 1 Echo.

Echo is built on the principles of time banking.  Time banking has been around in the UK for a while, often working with individuals in local community settings. Echo is the first time bank specifically designed to allow businesses and organisations to exchange in this way. We also support a growing network of P2P time banks enabling individuals in local communities to get involved.

I think Echo is exciting because it’s fundamentally challenging the way we place value on things. Time banking asserts there’s more value in the system than just that which is valued by the market. By valuing every skill and resource at an hour for an hour, charities, businesses and individuals are able to participate on an equal footing, and we’re able to give a value to things traditionally de-valued in a market economy – like helping a neighbour, caring for children, etc.

One of my favourite things about my job is bringing people together, sometimes in unexpected ways! Whether that’s enabling local charity the New Hanbury project to earn Echoes by fitting out a Dalston-based photography studio, or the Feminist Times renting desk space for Echoes in a somewhat male-dominated creative workspace in Haggerston, Echo makes interesting things possible without money changing hands. Over the last few months, we’ve used Echo as a tool to facilitate exchange of skills and resources ranging from from barista training to pop-up restaurant space, website design to bike fixing, haircuts to business mentorship.

Since starting work on this project, I’ve been inspired by other initiatives also challenging us to look at the way we manage resources differently. Whether it’s the Meanwhile Project making creative use of empty spaces, or Streetbank helping local people share their stuff, there’s an exciting array of initiatives out there helping people and businesses make better use of resources, and I’m pleased to be a part of that with Echo.

At a time of year when all of us (and I’d argue especially women) are being bombarded with messages to buy more and consume more, I’m really pleased to be working on a project where people and organisations are valued not by their net-worth or economic spending-power, but by their intrinsic value and what they can do for each other.

Echo is currently London-based but we hope to build similar models elsewhere before long. If you’re a Londoner you can join here (either as an organisation, or as an individual, or both). If you’re from elsewhere, google time banks in your local area and get involved!

Sarah Henderson is the broker at Echo, helping individuals and organisations trade their skills and time. She tweets @economyofhours

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#IDontBuyIt: Profile – Buy Nothing Day

Buy Nothing Day was started by the Canadian organisation Adbusters in the 90s and has grown into an international event celebrated in more than 65 countries. It’s a simple idea, which challenges consumer culture by asking us to switch off from shopping for a day. The day is celebrated as a holiday by some, a street party by others; anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

The idea of not shopping for a day (particularly the busiest Saturday before Christmas) seems absurd! But there is a serious side to Buy Nothing Day, which highlights the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. The rich western countries – only 20 per cent of the world population is consuming over 80 per cent of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage and unfair distribution of wealth.

As consumers we need to question our culture of shopping, especially when people simply shop to feel good or just to impress each other. We all have different needs and ultimately we are all consumers, so will never be able to escape consumerism altogether. But this shouldn’t stop us from questioning the products we buy or challenging the companies who produce them.

The issues connected with Buy Nothing Day are broad and deep, but we focus on promoting ethical and responsible consumerism, recycling and re-using. We want people to become aware that large corporations are exploiting labour conditions in developing countries, using up vital resources because they are cheap, and there aren’t the systems in place to protect workers or the environment like those in the west.

The gap between rich and poor nations is growing in spite of the much-heralded benefits of globalisation. There are still 1.3 billion people world wide who live on less than $1 a day and a similar number of people do not have access to clean water.

Workers’ rights in developing countries are frequently violated, including payment of low wages and long working hours. The lives of workers may also be endangered by poor health and safety provision. Supporters of globalisation offer economic growth as a solution to world poverty; they propose that impoverished nations and individuals can eventually attain a standard of living similar to our own through the ‘trickle down’ of wealth. But the current globalisation model is leading to an increase in world poverty and inequality.

Buy Nothing Day is a non-confrontational campaign – we ask people to have a bit of fun, play a few pranks, use their imagination, and simply escape consumerism for a day. It could be argued that this method of campaigning won’t capture the public’s attention or is laughing in the face of the more important issues, but if people laugh at the ingenuity and genius of Buy Nothing Day, then we’ve got their attention and we are opening the door.

Buy Nothing Day isn’t about changing your lifestyle for just one day – hopefully it becomes a lasting relationship – maybe a life changing experience? Modern consumerism may offer great choice, but this shouldn’t be at the cost of people developing countries or the environment.

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#IDontBuyIt: High street stores ‘less sexist’ this Christmas than last year

Gendered ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs in toyshops are on the decline, according to a survey by campaign group Let Toys Be Toys.

The survey, carried out throughout November by supporters of the campaign, found use of gendered signs has decreased by 60 per cent compared to last Christmas, when the campaign began.

Kerry Brennan, one of the founders of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, said: “While there’s still a long way to go to address sexism in the toy industry, the changes in major retail chains like Debenhams are just brilliant to see.

“They’ve replaced pink and blue ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs with new colourful signs that say ‘Vehicles’, ‘Superheroes’, ‘Soft Toys’, and ‘TV Characters’, among others.”

Supporters found just a fifth of high street stores using ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs to identify their toys, compared with half of all shops last year.

Hobbycraft was crowned ‘best of the high street’ for marketing toys without relying on gendered or sexist stereotypes, with Toymaster and Fenwick respectively second and third.

Fenwick, Debenhams and TK Maxx were all named ‘most improved’, having recently removed their ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs.

Supermarket Morrisons was found to be most ‘sexist’, with supermarkets tending to use gendered stereotypes more frequently than independent toy retailers.

Ms Brennan added: “Everything is much easier to find and children are no longer being sent the message that science and adventure are only for boys, crafts and nurturing play only for girls.”

Of the fourteen major retailers contacted by the Let Toys Be Toys campaign in 2013, seven have already removed the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signage from shop floors or own-brand toy packaging: Hobbycraft, Boots, TK Maxx, The Entertainer, Debenhams, Fenwick and Next.

Five stores – Toys R Us, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury and Morrisons – are in the process of doing so.

However, the survey also found that just over 70% of stores still used some kind of gender cues, with 40% of stores using gender to sell the majority of their toys.

“We still have a way to go,” said Rebecca Brueton, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner.

“We made getting rid of the signs our priority this year and the survey shows it’s working. Even so, you can still find plenty of shops promoting outdated and limiting ideas, giving children the message that science is only for boys and creativity for girls.”

Let Toys Be Toys is a grassroots campaign group established in November 2012. The campaign believes both boys and girls benefit from a range of play experiences, and should not be restricted by marketing which tells them which toys and activities are for boys or girls. Let Toys Be Toys is run and organised wholly by volunteers.

 See www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk for more information.

Image courtesy of Let Toys Be Toys.

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#IDontBuyIt: “I lost everything” – rebuilding after the crash

In 1845, the great black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass described these so-called holidays as: “one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave.”

He saw right through the false religious piety to the real economic motive of the celebrations: “I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. These holidays serve as …safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

Today, no matter what our colour or creed, we are to a large part still enslaved – by debt and consumerism. Media images, through advertising and films, really up the ante for everyone to produce a “perfect” Christmas day, with that fuzzy feeling of family and love.

As women – mothers, aunts and grandmothers – we can choose to influence our children by modelling a different way. This is true of anyone trying to “be part of the solution” and there are many people waking up to just that.

Recent events, like Libor rigging and banking bailouts, have shown Neoclassical economics to be unfit for purpose. In response Economics students at Manchester University have set up a post-crash economics society with 800 members, demanding an end to monolithic neoclassical courses and the introduction of a pluralist curriculum.

Iceland has imprisoned bankers, sacked its government and rewritten its constitution. Instead of bailing out banks, they jailed bankers and wrote down everyone’s personal debt, making far more sense in my view,

Another alternative way is presented by free economist Mark Boyle, founder of the Free Economy website, “just for the love of it”, and author of The Moneyless Man and The Moneyless Manifesto. Mark says: “We are working towards living in a localised gift economy, meeting all of our needs through gifting and growing our own food.”

Sounds like heaven on earth to me – imagine if each local area had a community allotment to grow the village or town veg. Those who are able volunteer and everyone benefits from a local store, where people can take food for free, share and exchange clothes, furniture, skills, tools, childcare, and eco-generated power. The list is endless.

My own personal perspective was formed after I lost everything at the hands of those now charged with fraudulent trading, conspiracy to corrupt and money laundering.

Finding myself on my own with four children under 7, assets stripped, and all support systems gone – husband, nanny, business, colleagues, money – was extremely devastating and life changing at the time.

However, through prayer and drawing close to God, I came to understand that to rebuild my life was to experience a paradigm shift in my priorities and a deep change within me. There really is a better way; like pebbles in the pond we just have to be it and our ripples will affect others.

When I discovered that some of what I was thinking was being expressed by Mark Boyle, through his ideals of free economy living, I decided to register with his Free Economy website.

I hadn’t even written my profile when I received an email sent from a woman living 45 minutes away asking for help with childcare and the use of a sewing machine. I offered and she spent the day at my house using my sewing machine. Her 2-year-old son played with my 3-year-old daughter, and I cooked for them and made drinks.

For me this concept works best where we are all living in community, seeing each other at local venues like churches and schools, being accountable to one another. Inviting unknown people, no matter how openhearted, into your home can lead to problems.

In my case it was the community bit that was missing. I did not know the woman I helped. She arrived with an air of entitlement and I now believe she left with a treasured ring, vanished from my bedroom where she had tried to lay her son to sleep. Despite this, I still believe with wisdom and community we can share all things in common.

In practical ways, we would all benefit from tending to community needs and objectives – enjoying locally grown produce and the community of sharing all things in common, and reducing stress and loneliness.

During this Christian holiday we would do well to remember that even Jesus demonstrated his agreement with Douglas’s sentiments, kicking down the tables of the traders and moneylenders operating in the synagogues. He saw right through the legalistic, false religious piety of excluding the lost, the lonely, the sick and disenfranchised, who he embraced.

So this Christmas, I for one am hoping for a quiet, peaceful and organic revolution. The power is in our hands if only we would wake up and participate.

Joanne Dove is a mother of five, a Christian feminist, and a member of Feminist Times.
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#IDontBuyIt: A Very Feminist Christmas Theme Week 16th – 22nd

We love a theme week and we’ve really gone to town on our Christmas themed week:

#IDontBuyIt: 16th – 22nd December

Our team of experts will be dissecting all things festive and why we as feminists just don’t ‘buy’ a lot of it. Whether it be capitalism, Xmas telly, the immaculate conception or the commodification of feminism. Here’s our list of #IDontBuyIt content:

The Guardian’s Issy Sampson unpicks the Christmas telly schedule to see how women fare in festive TV.

Psychiatrist Anna Fryer on womb envy, feminist psychoanalysis and the immaculate conception.

One of Santa’s Elves whistleblows on her working conditions.

Tales from women in the banking and media industries about their sexist office parties.

Dr Kristin Aune, Reader in Sociology & Director of the Centre for Society, Religion & Belief on how you can be a Feminist and a Christian.

A reader who lost it all in the crash explains why we should all adopt the Free Economony.

An exploration of the commodification of Feminism.

Children’s Editor Anna on toys.

Joni Seager and Lucia Ricci infographic on women, credit and depression.

Buy Nothing Day and Echo profiles, Feminist Fairies, and more.

#5yearssinceMaria: From the 16th – 19th December we will also be marking the fifth anniversary of Maria Stubbings’ death, alongside Refuge, including:

Maria Stubbings’ story.

He punched a horse: comparison of sentencing for domestic violence versus other crimes.

The manifesto of a woman who suffered from domestic violence.

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Who runs this place?

Bring back feudalism! This may not be a very populist sentiment, but it would be less confusing to be a peasant grubbing around in the dirt for some inbred overlord than it is to be a citizen today.

These days I’ve no idea at whose carriage to sling dung because most of the people who run the world are nameless and faceless; it would be easier to get a date with Keyser Soze. Power now resides with majority shareholders; lobbyists; distant business leaders; people who run eye-watering investment portfolios, inscrutable banks and insurance companies.

These shadowy few run supranational organisations which have little responsibility to the countries in which they do business – as evidenced by the way many of them use offshore tax havens. They can be opaque, unaccountable and more powerful than elected leaders.

Take Thames Water for example, it’s owned by Kemble Water Holdings whose investors include pension funds, the Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund and institutions from Australia, China, the Middle East, the UK and Canada. Pretty straightforward, then.

It’s a very generous company. In 2010/11 Thames Water paid its shareholders dividends of £271.4m out of a profit of £225.2m and in 2011/12 declared a dividend of £279.5m out of that year’s profit of £247.2m.

So now, having thrown its money around like a drunk trying to make friends in a bar, Thames Water has gone cap-in-hand to Ofwat to ask permission to add a one-off charge of £29 to its customers’ bills to pay for its much-needed super sewer. The drunk has sobered up and doesn’t fancy paying the bar tab. He’d rather you and I pay it. And remember, it’s a regional monopoly, so it’s not as though people who live in the Thames area can decide to get their water from anyone else.

Fortunately its request was denied by Ofwat, so in response Thames Water is proposing to hike bills by about £40 plus inflation by 2020. You have to admire their chutzpah.

And how long has Thames Water known it would have to find funding for a super sewer? Since at least 2010. Enough time to squirrel away some of those profits, you’d think.

A spokeswoman for Thames Water said, “Thames Water is delivering record levels of investment in its treatment works, pipes and sewers, together with improved operational performance and steadily improving customer service while keeping the average household bill the second-lowest in England and Wales. This represents good value for Thames Water customers.” She was also keen to point out that the super sewer is an “Exceptional Government-mandated project … water companies do not decide to build £4bn tunnels – Governments do.”

The Australian Macquarie Group (Macquarie-managed funds hold a 26% investment in Thames Water) is itself head-spinningly vast. It has assets under management of $US 359 billion; they manage more than 3.6 million hectares of land, that’s almost twice the size of Wales (the standard unit of land measurement) and have clients across the globe including China, UAE and Brazil.

It would be moronic to be alarmed by a company by virtue of its size, but let’s look at its potential influence in the UK. This time last year Macquarie raised $500 million to invest in UK infrastructure projects (it already manages funds which own UK assets such as Bristol airport and the M6 toll road). Macquarie itself also holds a 5% shareholding in IGas, which holds the largest number of drilling rights in the UK along with couple of power stations and is now expanding its own power trading business over here too.

And there’s more. Macquarie Capital’s Jonathan Harris sits on the advisory board for David Cameron’s Regeneration Investment Organisation, which according to the PM, “Will act as a one-stop-shop for our major inward investment opportunities – with £100 billion of possible projects on the table”. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to love a bit of infrastructure investment but doesn’t it become problematic when ownership of crucial assets is allowed to be so opaque, diffuse and consequently unaccountable?

The now infamous Australian, Lynton Crosby, is David Cameron’s campaign advisor and Crosby’s communications firm, Crosby Textor International, is run by Remo Nogarotto, previously of Macquarie, and who continues to sit on Macquarie Banks European Advisory Board. Guy Robinson, Special Advisor to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, used to work for Crosby Textor. There’s an enormous amount of cross pollination going on. Like one big happy bee family. It’s really quite sweet.

And last week – not long after Cameron’s recent trade mission to China – the Government announced its National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) which involves the sale of about £375bn of the UK’s assets in energy, transport, communications, and water projects. It’s the sale of the century. Get ready to see your bills and fares rise even further.

I asked Macquarie if they would be taking advantage of the NIP. “Macquarie has a long track record of facilitating investment in infrastructure companies in the UK through its advisory and funds management businesses”, came the inscrutable reply.

So do you know who’s running our utilities, infrastructure or who owns our land? Or who’s about to buy up the UK’s remaining assets? Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a capitalist and I believe the corporation can be a phenomenal power for good. However, I think that dispersed ownership creates a veil of anonymity behind which individuals and institutions are emboldened to act irresponsibly. And I’m frustrated by the oft trotted out argument that many of these shareholders are actually our pension funds so we’d better not complain about it unless we want to spend our dotage in a ditch.

The people who are running their companies responsibly should be lauded as heroes and those who are running them at cross purposes to society’s needs should to be named and shamed. Governments across the globe need to stand together and legislate for greater transparency and regulation.

That’s why I’d rather feel swindled by an old fashioned boot-in-your-face despot. It would be so much easier to storm the castle.

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Charlotte Raven

The Allure of PR

I have been having lots of strange conversations in upscale coffee houses with eggs benedict on the menu about monetizing Feminist Times online. A little bit of paid for content from appropriate partners like female recruitment agencies couldn’t hurt, the siren voices say.

PR sirens are better dressed and more reasonable sounding than the evil Nicotine in the anti smoking ads screened in the seventies. But just as dangerous. One bit of paid for content and we’ll be in their grasp.

At the mumsnet blogfest last weekend I met lots of people who had successfully monetized their personal online brand.

I thought mummy bloggers would be obsessed with their children but was clearly behind the times; they are obsessed with vintagey gee gaws, fashion and free holidays, just like all the lifestyle journalists I know.

Is this progress? The earliest mummy blogs I read were all about maternal ambivalence, PND and infidelity. But today’s blogs are as conflicted as woman’s magazines. They started off as one thing – a place where they could talk honestly about the experience of motherhood and reach out for support, and became mercantilist – a clever way of marketing family life back to itself.

Mummys spend a lot of time enthusing, so they are perfectly suited to the role of brand ambassadors. The bloggers are proud of their commercial partners – the real ones hardly feature. Some speak about their kids as if they are soda streams and vice versa. Why wouldn’t they be plied with free stuff? It would take a great deal of concentration not to end up with statement cookware on every surface and a blog full of the cheapest kind of PR.

Of course I empathise. It has never been more expensive to bring up children and I applaud other types of mumpreneurs. I don’t feel superior to the mummy bloggers, as my principles have cost me dear. My refusal to ever contemplate writing for money, rather than for love, has meant that for years my husband has been the main breadwinner. Ironically, I am more dependent than the mummy bloggers, so I envy their pragmatism and commitment to a feminist ideal.

Feminist magazines are less expensive to run than kids; I nearly succumbed to the PR sirens’ logic during these coffee house consultations because the consequences of not doing so were dramatically conveyed. Like many free to access websites, we won’t have any money to grow or develop and the Fem T team will be content slaves working from dawn till midnight to feed the website – a constantly open maw. We will write everything ourselves because we won’t be able to afford (not to) pay anyone else, until we burn out.

We believe we’re right not to have a paywall, but worry that lovely free content might feel like an entitlement. Most websites are free after all, but those that survive usually have multiple income streams, unlike us. We only have one – you.

Crowdfunding is honourable but embarrassing. The ask is personal for one thing, involving a lot of emotions. Will I feel personally slighted if you decide to spend your money on sodastreams rather than Feminist Times? The ligger’s life is easier. I’d rather ask PRs for freebies and heads of recruitment agencies for paid for content than implore you to part with your hard-earned cash for my project.

The fear of being rejected has led me not to appeal to you directly. Unwittingly, Fem T may have given the impression that we/I are loaded. Would that we had family money to invest in the project. My poor father is too ill to even sign up as a member.

It’s a fine line isn’t it? I want to be credible and not desperate and may, in the process, have given the impression that the funding for the project would enable us to buy the little extras like aeron chairs, rather than the basics like paper.

Obviously if I’d been a bit more Bob Geldof about it we would have kept saying, give us your fucking money at the outset. I was backward in coming forward. The jokes on the membership levels were a way to avoid appealing directly.

We have over 500 members but need more of our thousands of signed-up supporters to join as members to sustain us. So now, belatedly, I’m being a bit Bob Geldof and saying we won’t survive for long with no paywall, PR or advertising unless you sign up as a member. If you sign up today you will be invited to our anti-consumerist Christmas celebration in the Conway Hall. As you probably know, the print incarnation of Feminist Times is a members only proposition. Our donations model (plan a) means we will need to keep on asking you proudly and shamelessly for the fucking money. Or plan b will be implemented; next week’s editorial will be brought to you by Nespresso.

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Running? It’s just jogging

“Jogging is for people who aren’t intelligent enough to watch Breakfast TV”  – Victoria Wood

Running is massiveMore people run than go to the gym. It’s so massive that most of my friends would describe themselves as some kind of “runner”. Bearing in mind the only thing they all had in common a matter of years ago was drinking, this is some kind of health-kick-culture miracle. But I only really knew something was up when I caught myself introducing ME as a “runner”. This was quite clearly a lie.

I had followed a 5k app and could do about 3k of it, yet something about what I was doing didn’t feel like running. That was when I took a look around at my peers running around and around and around my local park and realised: we’re not runners, we’re joggers.



What’s the significance of this? Jogging was universally panned sometime around the mid 90s as being incredibly bad for you. So who is it that rebranded jogging?

Speed, conditioning and rehabilitation coach, Mike Antoniades told the BBC: “If you are ‘moving’ slower than 6 miles per hour you are jogging, and quite frankly you would be better off walking! Walking at 4 mph or faster is biomechanically more efficient and far more beneficial to you than ‘jogging’ slowly!”

So my apps tell me I’m running but, according to Mike, I’m just jogging and killing myself; you need to be doing at least 9.6K in an hour to even be considered a slow runner. What we’ve got here is an emperor’s new clothes epidemic of epic proportions, with loads of naked emperors limping around ever so smugly as Ellie Goulding tells them they’re amazing in the that Nike App like a deluded mum.

Who has sold us these imaginary threads? The sportswear industry, the suspect with most to gain. The only thing all those running mates of mine have in common really is they’ve all spent money on cool trainers, breathable weather-proof tops, bands, apps and those little bum bags for your arm you put your phone in. Mine’s neon pink.


Image courtesy of Chris Hunkeler

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ebranding feminism at Mother

Debranding feminism

A few months ago Elle magazine rang to say how exited they were to hear about our launch, and keen to collaborate with us! “Awesome,” I said. “We are very excited that you are excited!”

Like PRs, women’s magazine editors deal in hyperbole, so I took their breathless account of the global impact and reach of their ‘rebranding feminism project’ with a pinch of salt.

Feminism has an image problem, they averred. To make the f word relevant to Elle readers it needs to be detoxified, denuded of all its bad karma, then remade as something practical and appealing, like a vintage throw (or words to that effect.)

This task clearly couldn’t be entrusted to feminist organisations – we were part of the problem surely, so were surprised to be invited to take to part in the Elle project. It made more sense when we learned we were to be partnered with an ad agency! The branding experts would know how to make a silk purse from the sows ear of feminism. They would create an alluring feminist ad that would run in the November issue of Elle, we would sit around in their offices drinking endless cappuccinos – at least that’s how I pictured this collaboration. I was reassured, but scared as it meant surrendering control and becoming ‘muses’ rather than equal partners.

We thought and thought about whether to take part. My best friend counselled against it – “that’s never going to work hon,” she meant on a personal level. Politically we don’t think feminism has an image problem – the puritanical, anti-fun feminist looms large in the media’s consciousness, but not in mine. I’ve never met her, even in the women’s groups I attended in the 80s.

I did meet lots of hairy legged, DM-sporting lesbians. My uni women’s group was a blast – there were no vagina awareness workshops, but a lot of laughs. We always ended the evening downing pints in a lesbian nightclub called Folies. I have very fond memories of my hairy lesbian friends of that era – they were committed, but not joyless.

These days, it’s compulsory for a feminist to appear fun, fashionable and uncommitted. The ‘This is what a feminist looks like T shirt was an attempt to rebrand feminism – implying that the only acceptable feminist is one who doesn’t look, sound or act like one. Hairy Mancunion lesbians couldn’t wear those T shirts; they are meant to reassure the mainstream that feminists are ‘normal’: ‘this’ and not ‘that’.

I started Feminist Times because I wanted to have a forum to explore the tyranny of the choice agenda. In fact, post-feminism is much more judgemental and excluding than the other sort. And ironically, a lot angrier. If you’re looking for angry feminists, they’re not working for Feminist Times.

A friend recently wrote to me about an angry-post feminist he’d met at a party: “She was banging on about modern feminists, so I asked her what she meant; I think it meant the freedom to be a shopping, spa-going, celebrity endorsing, brand-aware member of the twitterrati, a kind of subtle, playful, ironic feminism that leant more towards feminine and chic.”

To help me decide whether to take part in the Elle project, I did a list of pros and cons, as my father is wont to do. In the pro column was the idea of reaching a broader audience: I want Feminist Times to be part of mainstream debate, so I thought I could survive a short stint as a muse for an ad agency if it meant getting our message across to a big audience without compromising its integrity.

My friend Kat from UK Feminista had also been love bombed by Elle, but managed to resist. She said they couldn’t take part in a project because they didn’t think feminism needed ‘rebranding’. Nor could she justify the time it would take away from campaigning. She was busy with the Lose the Lads Mags campaign and couldn’t take time out to brainstorm in Shoreditch

By that logic I couldn’t really spare the time either – we were meant to be putting together a brand new online magazine after all, but I agreed, then put the whole thing out of my mind. One morning, we found ourselves talking intently about our anti-consumerist message to a room full of intelligent and well-dressed people in an East London space. Funky doesn’t begin to describe the HQ of Mother, the agency we were partnered with. My eight-year-old loved the elephant’s behind in the breakout room but was disconcerted by the lack of a whiteboard.

“How do they brainstorm without a whiteboard?” Anna asked.

Mother seemed like Feminist Times’ dream date. They ‘got’ our sense of humour, shared our cultural references and seemed in synch with our punk spirit. They took copious notes while we were riffing about our vision of a feminist utopia, where PR people would be put to work as carers. They seemed to agree that the ad should have an anti capitalist message. Awesome! The only downer was one of the Mother women, who kept bringing the conversation back round to body hair.

We couldn’t believe that for these women, who said they had only come to feminism through Caitlin Moran’s book a few years ago, that the choice of whether to have a Brazilian or not was so empowering.  We doubted their stats and Deborah sent through the results of a quick Google search that suggested maybe not as many women as they imagined were compelled to have all their pubic hair ripped out.

I loved the ad people’s outfits – the woman opposite was wearing a vintage baby doll dress with colourful eighties mid heels and incredible robot necklace.  The cappuccinos flowed, but I didn’t feel remotely compromised. I loved being a muse and would happily have stayed there all afternoon, improvising on the theme of my personal feminist philosophy, but eventually I had to get my daughter home so I made my excuses. We had been brainstorming for five hours but it felt like five minutes.

We were excited to see what Mother came up with. In the dialogues that followed, they said that Elle had vetoed anything with an anti-consumerist message.  That was disappointing but understandable. The first idea from them was called ‘Proper Cunts’ – they would ‘crowdsource’ a variety of different vaginas and create a photomontage, which would make the Elle reader think twice before getting a Brazilian.

I was worried that the cunt shots would be differently objectifying, like the Channel 4 ‘real sex’ show that’s meant to be claiming sex back from the pornographers.  Surely the point can be made without the cunt shots, which would look like pack shots?

Deborah thought, in name only, the cunts were punky but we were worried it could be like an early version of Vice. I agreed to run with them after Mother put my mind to rest, but was relieved when Elle vetoed the idea. They’d be “taken off the shelves” if they ran the Proper Cunts ad, apparently.

The November issue of Elle has the ad we eventually signed off. It’s about equal pay, the line of least resistance. It seems to blame men, rather than capitalism for the pay gap, and holds them personally accountable for it.

“If he does the same job, ask him his salary.”


They said this was very un-English to ask people about their salaries – we agreed but we tried to get them to change the emphasis so that the iteration was addressed to the underpaying boss, rather than the over-paid man. Apparently it’s illegal to ask a boss to disclose the details of wage differentials.

The pay gap felt like a more ‘serious’ and ‘worthy’ issue to pin our colours to than bikini waxing and, crucially, was something that was accessible to Elle readers. But it didn’t set our pulse racing and nor did it capture the issues we felt most strongly about.

The problem with ‘rebranding feminism’ is that feminism isn’t a brand to begin with. It’s a process rather than an idée fixée. There’s no easy way of capturing that process in an A4 visual advert – believe me, we tried – so any ‘rebrand’ would inevitably have been a compromise. A woman’s magazine, an advertising agency and the team from Feminist Times were never going to be easy bedfellows, because they exist to sell products and we are explicitly anti advertising; our slogan is ‘life not lifestyle’ and they make their livings from ‘lifestyle’.

With Elle’s deadline looming, we signed of the ad. The funny thing was that no one was enamoured of this idea – it was the least popular with all of us, including the people from Mother, but it was the one that appeared in the magazine. The experience was a fascinating parable about the constraints the mainstream media is operating under. My time as muse for Elle has taught me that women’s magazines are structurally incapable of originality. I don’t blame the Elle team for this, any more than I blame well paid men for the pay gap.

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The ‘hard times’ look

I have a fraught relationship with thrift.  My husband had spent the past ten years proselytizing about the virtue of living within our means. We argue constantly about money, because we never have any left over once the bills, mortgage and high interest loans are paid. I never earned enough money as a freelance writer to cover our childcare costs, but kept thinking I would. I argued us into debt – I would earn more money, as long as I had childcare, so it was worth borrowing money to finance it. I didn’t of course and then the debts made it even harder to break even.

I’m ashamed to say that I am a ‘spendthift’. I love expensive things; my weaknesses are cocktails, hotels and vintage clothes. I don’t like traveling on public transport, camping or squeezing the end of the toothpaste. Would money make me happy? My impoverished writer friend John Healy and I fantasize about what we do if we won the lottery. He would buy a duplex by the sea in Rottingdean and I would build a stilted mansion in the sea off Treasure Beach in Jamaica.

My profligacy made sense in the nineties – I was loaded. I earned 30 grand a year in my early twenties and had no mortgage or kids to think about.  But my boom era sensibility hasn’t adjusted to austerity. My income from journalism is paltry these days, but I’m still feeling as if that shouldn’t be the case. I think there should be a higher monetary value put on thoughtful writing. The only way I could make journalism work, is to increase my output, so I could turn things round in hours rather than weeks, which I’d find very difficult.

Tom bought me a book called ‘How to worry less about money,’ thinking it would offer wisdom that would enable me to come to terms with wanting and not having. He thinks I should accept that I can’t have creative freedom and cash.

Amusingly, the writer has the same fraught relationship that I do with his crappy but functional car. He thinks he should have a better car, and feels even more resentful than I do about the dents we can’t afford to fix. My ten year old Golf is horribly reliable, like his, so there’s no chance of it breaking down. I keep denting it in protest, like scuffing the Start Rite shoes my mother made me wear to school.

Thirft is in Tom’s DNA. His parents were brought up making do and mending in middle class families during the war.  Money was tight but there was plenty of stimulating discussions about literature and theology to make up for it.

Thirty years later, they furnished their second home in Dorset from church fetes and scout jumble sales. Nothing has been altered or improved. ‘Granny’s cottage’ looked a bit weird in the nineties, but now ticks a lot of boxes! There’s no fitted kitchen, central heating, television, wi fi or mobile phone coverage; the furniture is worn and the ancient hoover doesn’t work: they could probably market it as an austerity experience to paying guests. Middle class thrifters could be sent out to forage for nettles during the day and return for a lesson on cooking on a range that isn’t even an Aga, then an authentically poor night’s sleep in one of the freezing bedrooms. They would love Granny’s homemade jam and fireside chats about days gone by.

My dad was also brought up during the war; his experience of austerity Britain was different from Granny’s. He grew up Plymouth, foraging for toys on bombsites. His Huntington’s affected mother couldn’t make do or mend. Her four children went without everything – food,  stimulating debates, and decent threads. He was nicknamed Murphy, after the tramp that hung around by the school gates and the name stuck.

When my brother Daniel was six months old, he nearly died of a mysterious illness when we were on holiday in Menorca. There was no doctor on the island, or rep of any kind. We couldn’t afford a return flight and Murphy always describes this terrifying feeling of impotence as a turning point. He decided money was important, and set about acquiring it.

When my dad made a cool million in the nineties from selling his business, he bought an extremely naff second home in a gated community in Florida with surfeit of comfortable seating, but no soul. Tom hated it there, and thought Murph’s overheated Jacuzzi was immoral, but it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

Can I learn to manage money more responsibly? Like many of the squeezed middle I have an eye for a bargain, and forget that they all add up. I’ve cut my cloth – or so I think: I’m no longer tempted by expensive new stuff but think second hand purchases don’t count, however many you buy and whatever you pay for them. My most recent purchase was a 140 pound vintage Bush record player – a consolation present for always being stressed about paying the bills.

I feel good when I come home a charity shop find, better than if I hadn’t bought anything. So I’m pleased with myself, but we’re still nowhere near balancing the books and I can’t understand why.

I was distressed to read the advice from Oxfam’s Green Granny in her household manual. “Don’t be seduced by a bargain. It’s not a bargain if you need not have bought it at all.”

In an attempt to understand the principals, I attended the thrift festival in Darlington last weekend hoping to connect with other high rolling thrifters like me, rather than Green Grannies and wasn’t disappointed.  The self-styled King of thrift, Wayne Hemingway began his talk by boasting about how little he had spent on his jacket.

I’ll wager that the sustainable Jacuzzi in Wayne and Geraldine’s garden wasn’t such bargain. Green Granny probably wouldn’t approve of the vast permanent Tipi in the garden where they entertain. I recognized the Hemingway’s home from the colour supplements but was still mesmerized by the slides featuring their fabulous living room and light fittings made out of inverted coffee cups.

Inevitably, there were bargains aplenty at the thrift festival and loads of thrifters with sharp elbows. The sign on the vintage jumble sale stall said, ‘We take cards’; I had my eye on 70s blanket at another stall full of beautiful vintage object’s – old suitcases and glass display domes for stuffed birds. The blanket was a steal at £38 – much cheaper than it would have been in London.

Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway have amassed so many second hand gee gews in the past 30 years that they had to have their own house, an old market hall in the Shropshire town of Craven House. Once it reached critical mass, they called their purchases an archive: the Land of Lost Content.

I can picture Tom’s expression if I explained that I was a collector of mid-century modern design. It might go down better if I had worked out how to monetise my collection. Hemingway has created a Vintage by Hemingway product range inspired by objects in the Land of Lost Content archive. What a brilliant idea! You can buy Vintage by Hemingway storage tins on the John Lewis website.

The Hemingways pride themselves on their northern nous and ability to make ‘silk purses out of sows ears.’ In the eighties, they sold the ‘hard times look’ to fashion conscious teens. Wayne describes gleefully how they sourced second hand clothes from rag and bone men and sold them for a huge mark up in their Camden Market stall. They couldn’t keep up with demand for old mens coats and granddad shirts! My mum thought the poverty trend was obscene – particularly at these prices – but the Hemingways’ conscience was clear.

Flash forward 30 years and the Hemingways have pitched an updated hard times look at the mass market. My taxi driver thought the branding for the festival looked Monty Pythonish – “you’re expecting a foot to come out of that sign.”

The visitors to the festival were surprisingly normal – families on a cheap day out. The £5 workshops would have been good value if they hadn’t been so incongruous; I don’t think Granny would have approved of the ‘make your own sushi’ module I attended, but would probably have enjoyed the talk by the man who invented freecycle.

My husband believes that thift culture is radically anti-capitalist. One of our contributing editors is also a big fan. Barbara argues that not buying more than you can afford will reduce debt and therefore the need for financial services. I can see that at its most extreme – eg freganism – thrift might offer a free space within capitalism. But will it precipitate revolution? The atmosphere at the thrift festival was far from incendiary. You couldn’t overthrow the system in a paper hat, or a belly full of lemon drizzle cake. It was easy to overdo it at the thrift festival, particularly for those of us with no children in tow. I ate three cakes instead of lunch, then couldn’t face my foraging workshop, which was a shame.

Thift culture is no longer a countercultural mainstay of anti-consumerist movements, but a cultural trend with a different emphasis.

Thrifty habits and practices like using up leftovers, foraging for food and sourcing vintage clothes in local charity shops are badges of honour for the competent bourgieous. According to sociologist Tracey Jenson, “Austerity has become an opportunity to showcase one’s consumer competence and thus cultural value.”

“I could have bought one from Paul Smith for thousands but it wouldn’t have been as individual. I love having things that I know no one else has got.” Hemingway’s cheap jacket is more of a status symbol than the Paul Smith because it conveys his distance from the over-consuming mainstream and connection with old time virtues.

Wayne grew up in a frugal family in Morecombe. His mum used to save all the soap ends and boil them all together in a big pan every few months to make new ones.

“I still think like this. How long is it since I bought a new bar of soap Geri?” Wayne asks rhetorically. Do they boil up their soap ends up in a massive pan chez Hemingway? I’m impressed until Hemingway confesses that he nicks the toiletries from hotel rooms – “we travel a lot.”

He’s been known to hide his stash and get housekeeping on the phone, demanding more Molton Brown bodywash. I wonder where he keeps it and whether he’s considered turning into an installation at the next thrift fest.

Thrift is the perfect alibi for this kind of demanding consumer, legitimizing the mindless acquisition of free stuff. Wayne’s hotel soap stash is a symbol of high-rolling thrift. But is there actually any other sort?

The new thrift is not about saving money or the planet.  According to Jenson, thrift is actually about “transforming the relationship of self to itself.”

“The New thrift positions itself not as a matter of survival but a way of transforming the relationship to self to itself.”

Thifters are impossibly smug. Classed others are shamed for not being thrifty enough, and showing excessive attachment to the material world. Though Jenson points out that austerity can hardly be a matter of pride for those who’ve had it thrust upon them.

This group is having a terrible time, but you never hear from them.  And the other group may be experiencing some difficulties but have the social capital to convert them into opportunities and blogs. If the internet had been around, my father’s father wouldn’t have been blogging copiously about the pleasures and challenges of single fatherhood, and the benefits of feeding a family of four on wartime rations, but Granny’s father might have had something interesting to impart about their situation.

The thift festival was a great place to pick up money-making tips. On the train home, I fantasised I about a Feminist Times product range, inspired by my growing collection of feminist artifacts. The covers of my suffragette newspapers could printed onto magnetic boards; you could pin your to-do lists on them or see it as an affordable and inspirational piece of wall art to admire!

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Woman and child on beach: Eduardo Merille

The manifesto of… a single mum on benefits

The ‘break-down’ of the nuclear patriarchal family is the fault of… The Nuclear Family. Yet I am represented as a parasite, certainly by the tabloids (not sure the Telegraph quite understands what a single mother is). Fine to be wanton and lazy if ya hot and a rich man will support you, but try living that lifestyle on the state… no no.

Look how we have been conditioned to judge those who step away from this model. Single mothers, co-habiting friends, solitary folk penalised by bedroom tax – a tax on the lonely, the introverted, the abandoned.

Our 2.4 set-up is not healthy but it does brilliantly for capitalism. Each little unit all making their individual purchases for the home. But it is the isolation this set-up creates from the tribe that causes depression and social strain.

In a larger group, even an extended family group of grandparents and aunts, women can have a low or difficult period and be supported back to health – the children are looked after by others during this time.

Never the less the ‘single mother’ has been distilled into a sub-class council estate mindless slapper. Who, despite her rock bottom IQ, is conniving enough to plan a secure financial future around having one or more babies. However, for most of us we are single parents for legitimate reasons: relationship break-up, domestic abuse, bereavement.

Does the myth hark back as a potent reminder of man’s earliest epiphany, the original fall from grace for women, when men discovered their part in the production of a child? Where the goddess fell from her magical pedestal. Is a single mother a crude reminder of this ancient mysoginist niggle? A woman. Having a baby. On her own. Without a man.


If I was in power, I’d like society to have…

  • More integrity, less platitudes, less generalisations, less scapegoating. In fact, a new political language that was both honest and optimistic. Less bullshit.
  • Practical experience for young people most likely to have early pregnancies – not with babies for a week, but with difficult six and seven-year-olds. Lessons about pregnancy, birth, motherhood, fatherhood, feminism and relationships in schools, throughout – not just one term or year.
  • Harsher penalties for the flagrant misogyny of the press.
  • Social accountability as a whole.
  • Revolutionising of internet porn controls.
  • NGOs to help soap operas raise their game and stop propagating socio-political ignorance.
  • Much better Arts funding.
  • A sea-change away from cult of celebrity which encourages the worship of the superficial, the material and success for all the wrong reasons.

Photo credit: Eduardo Merille

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