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Laurie Penny and the Oppression of Women

20/08/2013 12:39 BST | Updated 18/10/2013 10:12 BST

In the last couple of years, several horrific and high-profile crimes against women have coincided with a surge in world-wide struggles against misogyny - from the glorious slut walks which have seen women and men march in various cities across the globe, to the more metaphysical battles, fought on the digital landscapes of social networks like twitter and Facebook, where people of all types have come together in order to ensure that women's voices should be heard, and not suppressed and curtailed by a never-ending stream of misogynist threat and bile.

One of the most express voices in this movement has been Laurie Penny's. She has chronicled its development in all its manifestations and guises. She has not only written about it, but also lived it, often finding herself - as a powerful and distinct feminist voice, subject to the very hatred she so persuasively and bravely struggles against; her writings, therefore, represent a beautiful, angry, insightful and often moving fusion of the personal and political, underpinned by the core demand which lives at the heart of any revolutionary - the yearning for change.

For all of this, her latest piece for NewStatesman feels problematic. In it Laurie addresses and dissects the basis for the society-wide oppression of women. It is something, she says, not simply perpetrated by rabid misogynists, but also by those men who - to all intents and purposes - consider themselves 'right on'; the type of conscientious males who would actively and loudly proclaim gender equality while participating in the routines and practises which have, as males, one-sidedly favoured them all their lives. The individual man, going about his daily business, 'may not hate and hurt women', argues Laurie - but 'men as a structure - certainly do' for they collectively participate in the forms of social practise which sustain patriarchy.

Because of this - although an individual man might not have a sexist agenda, he has nevertheless, in a myriad of unconscious ways, benefited from a system which cultivates his rights, his ambitions, and his dreams - over and above those of his female counterpart. He is 'implicated, even though... [he]... never chose to be'.

I should start by saying that I agree with much of what Laurie Penny says here. I identify myself as a feminist - if by that you mean that women are as every bit rational and capable and as human as men - and yet we live in a world in which these facts simply aren't embodied in our social practises. I could go into the consequences of this - which range from the horrific gang-rapes and murders we read about to the more mundane forms of injustice - like the overall almost 10% decrease in wage which a woman executive receives on average in comparison with her male equivalent here in England. I won't dwell on those things because thinkers, like Laurie, who are far more knowledgeable, have done the job more effectively.

And I think Laurie is right in another respect too; despite my conscious awareness of the rational basis of equality between the genders - I have, as an individual male, profited throughout my life - sometimes consciously, sometimes not - from the discrepancy in power-relations between men and women as a whole. On the personal level, I know I have behaved in a sexist way - in terms of remarks I have made, attitudes I've held to, and behaviour I have exhibited. But more than that - and this is Laurie's point I think - I am certain that living in a patriarchal society has very likely allowed me to gain a job which my more talented female equivalent would have been denied - or given me a platform to speak, when a woman sitting nearby was ignored - even though I am a poor speaker, muddle my phrases and stutter interminably etc.

So why do I have a problem with Laurie's article? Well it consists in this - the transition she makes from the particular to the universal. While patriarchy might be good for me, as this man, at this point, I don't think Laurie's generalisation to 'men as structure' is altogether viable. Let me elucidate. The most significant and profound revolution in human history began on international woman's day in the city of St. Petersburg nee Petrograd. Women textile workers came out on strike - and when one considers this it is important to acknowledge the sheer heroism of the event - these women were not striking in the conditions of contemporary England where they risked being kettled or a blow from a baton; rather they were striking in Tsarist Russia which could well mean death from a volley of machine-gun fire in the street. The men, at this point, had been cowed - the women had to gather outside their factories, throwing snowballs, shouting and goading them to come out.

These women provided the spark of a world historic revolution, and they should never, ever be forgotten even if we don't know their names. But - and this is the point; what would have happened if those men had not seen in those women as people who embodied the same set of universal grievances against the grotesque regime which hung over Russia like a nightmare. Wouldn't the men just have stubbornly refused to come out in the first place?

I am not saying that those men didn't have all sorts of personal sexist, traditional ideas when it came to the role of women, because surely many of them did, but nevertheless, because of the social practises of labour - the men and women exploited before the demands of a voracious, parasitical state - the power, and the fury, and the potent for revolutionary emancipation - was derived from a solidarity which had formed between them. The men came out under the impetus and direction of those women and did not allow any sexist ideas to hold them back.

And the same is true today. It might well benefit this or that individual man to go home and enjoy the fact that his wife will have the dinner on the table as and when he asks. But the ideological consequences which flow from this form of behaviour cripple him in the long run, for he will disdain the collective power - which the women's movement provides - to prevent and subvert the social forces which have the ability to grind his life into the dust, to take away his pension, his health care, the education for his children, and so on.

'All men are implicated in a culture of sexism' - says Laurie, and this is a 'challenge'. But any such challenge is profoundly divisive. It is as divisive as saying all white people are implicated in a culture of racism. Or all middle class people - and I think Laurie would include herself in this number - are implicated in a culture of working class repression. And yet, Laurie herself, as an activist and a Marxist, has expended a good deal of effort fighting for the cause of the impoverished. Would it make sense to 'implicate' her in their repression?