Monday, 3 November 2014

Gesture politics is dangerous – who cares what a feminist looks like?

That may be a bit harsh as the intentions were good but the problem with these gestures is that they can backfire.  The Fawcett Society is an organisation that campaigns for women's rights and its roots date back to 1886 when Millicent Garrett Fawcett dedicated her life to a peaceful campaign for women’s suffrage. It remit covers matters such as equal pay and representation for all groups. So what could be safer than a t-shirt saying “This is what a feminist looks like” and worn by loads of high profile people. Much press coverage and money raised for the charity.

After many years in the charity sector working with commercial companies in cause-related-marketing (where a product or service is sold with a donation going to the charity for each item sold) it is an area fraught with danger. At its most extreme – for example no one would think of raising money for a lung charity with a tobacco promotion but it can be subtler and more complicated. What about that healthy sounding cereal that turns out to be 30% sugar and obesity is a risk factor for the disease you are raising money for – etc etc.

You need to do a risk assessment with every product alliance, and with any celebrity link-up. Imagine a children’s charity finding out mid-promotion that their celebrity has been arrested for child abuse or a drug rehab charity that their celebrity sponsor falls spectacularly off the wagon in front of the camera. The permutations are endless and keep many a corporate fundraiser and celebrity manager awake at night. (You know who you are…….)

So what could be safer than a t-shirt saying “This is what a feminist looks like” worn by famous people and linked to Elle magazine and a trendy shop.  Raise awareness and money.  Pity they couldn’t persuade the Prime Minister to wear one, Milliband and Clegg did – and so did Harriet Harman at Prime Minister’s question time.

As the time I thought that the PM was correct as did 64% of women polled – I think this is gesture politics and I don’t believe does anything to advance the cause of women. Elle magazine of all places! Read about fashion and make-up (I do) but feminism is not about 145 handbags and accessories or a push up eyeliner with ultra thin (possibly even airbrushed?) models making any average women feel inadequate. This stunt won't ensure more women MPs let alone Cabinet Ministers and Cameron would have been castigated about serious stuff like that if he had taken part. Milliband and Clegg don't have such a great record either!

It has now spectacularly backfired as, according to the Mail on Sunday, the factory where the t-shirts are being produced in Mauritius pays their migrant female staff below the minimum wage and about a quarter of the average monthly wage and they sleep 16 to a room. Oops!

I am sympathetic to the Fawcett Society as they were assured that the garments would be made in the UK and when they spotted they weren’t were assured that the factory was ethical etc.  No doubt trebles all round at the Cabinet Office – at least Cameron wasn’t part of that disaster.

In a way that distracts from my primary objection – this is gesture politics and I don’t think will have persuaded anyone who isn’t interested in equality. Of course feminism comes in all shapes and sizes (literally!) and I have been a feminist since the sixties - I am not sure that we have done such a great job. 

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