Back when the Oxford Union decided to admit female members in 1963, no one in their right mind could have claimed that “we are all feminists now”. The first speaker, leading silk and barrister Michael Beloff, was Union president at the time. He remembers that the issue was “as controversial in Oxford then as gay marriage is today”. He commended the “irresistible rise” of women over recent decades, exemplified by England’s first woman prime minister, female head of state, and the recent change in law that ensured no discrimination between sexes over succession to the throne. He concluded that, “we might not all be female, but we are all feminists now.”
Opposition speaker Rachel Johnson, author, freelance journalist and editor of The Lady, retorted that the debate was about feminism, “not all about laughs,” and pointedly refused to wish the audience a happy Valentine’s Day. She accused Michel Beloff of lying about some of the “more egregious insults” suffered by women in the Oxford Union, including a motion to admit women that failed in 1922 and a motion that all women’s colleges should be levelled to the ground that passed in 1926. She criticized the recent, highly publicized international women’s hour for honouring two women who had inherited their positions of power; Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Murdoch.
Proposition speaker Cindy Gallop, advertising CEO and founder of web platforms IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, introduced herself as a “rampant feminist”. She acknowledged that business is a “male-centric concept” and the “entire corporate structure is predicated on the assumption of a housewife at home and a man at work.” She proposed adding more flexible working hours for women in order to render business gender equal. When opposition speaker Edwina Curry asked how these gender equal businesses would keep up with competition, she replied that “gender diversity drives innovation”. She claimed that women disrupt the comfortable world of male executives because they “ask the tough questions”, and “out of discomfort comes greatness”.
On the opposition side, Green Party leader and former Guardian Weekly editor Natalie Bennett pointed out that the proposition had an impossible task. She listed the many individuals and institutions that could not possibly be deemed feminist, such as Jeremy Clarkson, the Church of England, European finance committees, the Bank of England, and David Cameron. Since on average a tenth of men’s income comes from welfare and a fifth of women’s, she argued that the government’s budget cuts are hitting women the hardest. Edwina Curry asked whether women should share the same percentage of the national debt, but Natalie Bennett retorted that they should only pay according to the tiny percentage of them that were running the banks at the time of the recession.
Proposition speaker Camila Batmanghelidjh, businesswomen and founder of the charity Kids Company, which has helped over 40,000 children, described in graphic terms the victimization and chronic abuse of young girls, which sometimes even takes place when they are supposedly nurtured by social services. Yet she also recalled meeting a young boy who was abused by his mother, and who spent his childhood travelling from one home to another as he became increasingly unable to control his behaviour She concluded that “differentiating between gender in terms of inequality is flawed”, and sought instead “essential principles that do not belong to any one gender”, based upon Jung’s notion of archetypes. In her view, the ability to love makes us all feminists in a Jungian sense of the word.
Opposition speaker Edwina Currie declared that she was “not a feminist, had never been a feminist and was never likely to be a feminist”. She argued that feminism “actually hates men” and disagreed with notion that equality means women and men should aspire to the same thing. She accused feminism of “denigrating the life experience of most women”, who will eventually take on long-term commitments and become mothers. In her view, the women who become CEOs don’t realize that the most precious moment of their lives “is holding their babies for the first time.” Addressing the female members of the audience, she described this moment as “the most important thing you’ll ever do” and was greeted with loud applause. At this point, Natalie Bennett announced that her side had “definitively proved that we are not all feminists now.” As the “proof of the pudding”, Edwina Curry cited Britain’s very own first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who believed that “feminism is poison”. She asked the audience why there were no female leaders of the labor party, why none of the female MPs had put themselves forward for leadership when they had the chance, and concluded that they “chickened out.”
On the proposition side, Dame Tessa Jowell, Labour MP and former Minister for the Olympics, summarized the debate as between “optimism and pessimism” and called her side the “optimistic” one. She expressed her gratitude that the women present in the debate chamber “take for granted having a choice over whether or not to get married, have sex or have babies”. Looking back on the gradual, incremental changes that took place after the Oxford Union first admitted women in 1963, she emphasized the need to be a “patient feminist” and “believe in possibility”.
The final speaker, blogger, journalist, author and New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, set out to dispel “a lot of myths” about feminism she had heard over the course of the debate. She rejected the previous speakers’ emphasis on getting women into the boardrooms, declaring that she “didn’t give a damn about boardrooms” and would be perfectly happy to get “both men and women out of the boardrooms” and “burn the boardrooms”. She dismissed Edwina Curry’s account of bra-burning feminists, prompting her fellow opposition speaker to stand up and affirm that she had seen it take place in the Union Chamber itself. Laurie Penny admitted that when she heard people applauding at the “reactionary, disgusting sentiments” of Edwina Curry, she felt sick and had to leave the chamber. She described violence and sexual assault on the streets of Cairo, the Catholic Church’s crackdown on a woman’s right to choose in Ireland, and her own experience of discrimination and rape in Oxford. But even as she warned of a “global backlash against women’s rights”, she echoed Tessa Jowell’s call to “act in a hopeful manner”. She admitted that “maybe we’re not all feminists now”, but was so “deeply depressed” by the speech of Edwina Curry that she advised the audience to vote against her side of the debate.
PHOTO/Katy Dowell, Sahil Nagpal, Tom Chivers, Mark Evans, Frank, TownTalk, Mayer Nissim