Feminism at the ballot box
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter)
It’s election season here in France, and I am watching proceedings unfold as an immigrant who does not yet have the right to vote. This is in one sense a source of frustration: there are few things I enjoy more than casting my ballot, which I’ve done in Australia (where you can have a ‘democracy sausage’ after voting) and in the UK (alas, no sausage). Every time I vote, I am moved by how recent a right this is for women – both my grandmothers were born before universal suffrage – and of the sacrifices made by the feminists of the past to win that right for me.
At the same time, few people I know are excited to vote in this election and I’m sure I would also struggle to muster great enthusiasm for any candidate. While I am passionate about the citizen duty to oppose the far-right in all its forms, including when it wears the clothes of ‘traditional’ conservatism, I find the paucity of ideas circulating in this campaign to be cause for disappointment.
This is never more the case than when we consider feminist issues. Despite the progress made in women’s rights in the past five years, and despite the global #MeToo movement, there is very little in this campaign to inspire the feminist imagination. We’re as likely to hear how candidates divide housework in their heterosexual households (Yannick Jadot of the Greens would like you to know that he irons his own shirts) as we are to hear about how their policy platforms will affect women.
Feminist campaign group Osez le Féminisme has ranked all 12 election candidates on a feminist-o-meter from “misogynist” to “feminist” by analysing their policies and voting histories. They found the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, traditional left Anne Hidalgo and communist Fabien Roussel to be the only feminist candidates in the race. (That hasn’t stopped Roussel from claiming that intersectionality is “dividing women”.)
And what about Emmanuel Macron? The president who claimed that equality between men and women would be a ”grand cause” of his first term nonetheless thinks abortion is “a right but still a trauma”, as he told us in his first major campaign event last month.
Meanwhile, it can be assumed that Macron’s plan to tie welfare benefits to 15 to 20 hours of activity a week, however unclear the policy is at present, will disproportionately affect women. Women represent the majority of welfare recipients, just as they are more likely to be on minimum wage and hence feel the sharpening cost of living crisis more keenly.
Regardless of who wins, any campaign that is fought with the far-right, which has two representatives in this race in Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, has the potential to spell disaster for women, as it does for immigrants, for LGBTQIA+ people, for people with disabilities and for the socially excluded. Current polling points to a second round contest between Macron and Le Pen, with Mélenchon the only contender from the left with a chance of making it.
All this makes me reconsider the role of electoral politics in advancing feminist causes. In one sense, they can change a lot for women – often for the worse. Just look at how the election of Donald Trump removed access to contraception for millions of women and girls worldwide when he signed the Global Gag Rule into law. Look at how his stacking of the Supreme Court with conservatives during his time in office could end safe, legal abortion access for millions at home in the US.
Or look at South Korea, where last month’s election of right-wing Yoon Suk-yeol, who campaigned on a platform of explicit anti-feminism, could set back the country’s recent hard-won progress on women’s rights by decades (as set out in clear and devastating detail in this thread by journalist Hawon Jung).
With that said, in recent years, I have become more favourable to the view that political action does not solely happen at the ballot box – and nor should it. Feminists have never been able rely on electoral politics to advance our causes.
That’s why activists in Nigeria recently marched on parliament to demand greater political representation and more gender-equal legislation, and succeeded in getting their elected representatives to reconsider.
There have certainly been feminist advances in France in the past five years, and while a government should be able to take some credit for the way society changes on its watch, too often we ignore the activists who pushed them to make those changes happen: the endometriosis sufferers calling for an end to medical sexism, the families of femicide victims demanding better protection for women from violent partners, the lesbian couples and single women who spoke up for their right to access fertility treatments, the survivors whose testimonies gave us new laws on the age of consent and incest, the thousands who march every November to call for an end to violence against women.
There are so many battles still underway. They are being fought by the mothers forming syndicates to advocate for the rights of children in the banlieue, the footballers who demand the right to play wearing a hijab, the journalists who expose misogyny within the police force, the trans people who are still excluded from fertility treatments, the academics who keep working despite being dismissed as « woke » or « islamogauchiste » simply for carrying out intersectional feminist research.
Amid a dispiriting election in which I must remain on the sidelines (but look out Australia, I’m coming for my democracy sausage in May), it is these activists in France and around the world who give me hope for feminist politics: from the South Korean feminists preparing for another big struggle ahead, to the Ghanaian LGBTQ+ community fighting against anti-gay legisation, the Afghan girls demanding an education and the British campaigners standing up against the horrifying treatment of Child Q. We make change every day, not every five years.
La lutte continue.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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