And so the radical vagina was most patriarchal of them all

Annie Teriba has had enough of a style of identity-politicking that delivers nothing for most women, but beats the war drum against Jeremy Corbyn,

Photo by Chatham House, flickr

This summer, the trajectory of the Jeremy Corbyn surge has been mirrored by the most fascinating but also irritating brand of identity-politicking. After frequent reminders of Yvette Cooper’s radical vagina, comment pieces about how abstaining from voting on savage cuts to tax credits was feminist and how real feminists would elect a woman whatever her politics, I felt weary.

Then it got worse, the identity-politicking came back last night with a vengeance as my newsfeed was overrun by the march of the #WhiteKnights4WomensRights despairing that Corbyn didn’t have enough vaginas at the top table – OH NO! Which white women will represent all the women of the land?! And yet – masked by this circus of identity politics – are the most violent forces of patriarchy at play. The masculinity of liberal imperialism is being mobilised mobilised with full force.

The politics of women’s representation in Labour has often been a bitter pill to swallow. While the excitement about Blair’s Babes raged on in the 1990s, it was Harriet Harman, the new Secretary of State for Social Security, who announced that Labour would go ahead with the Conservative plans to scrap lone parent benefits. This is a politics that has  always been about securing the interests of cis white middle class women. I asked, only to be met with a resounding silence, where all these think pieces were when Diane Abbott was running for Labour Leader. Suzanne Moore (who doesn’t even think trans women are women) instead seems comfortable leading the charge against “brocialism while bemoaning a socialism which focuses too much on inequality as working class women continue to bear the brunt of austerity. This kind of lazy privilege is why in the portfolio of “feminist” comment pieces unleashed on us this summer, Corbyn’s consultation on issues disproportionately affecting women and his support from the majority of women in the party received not one mention. The demand for women’s representation above all else wrongly presumes that women exist on a singular axis – that we are not black, queer, disabled or working class. It misses the first lesson of intersectional theory, our difference means that to speak of “women’s” issues is necessarily incoherent.

Indeed, this politics rests on even shakier ground – an inaccurate understanding of patriarchy. If patriarchy was concerned primarily with men and women, it would not punish feminised men so violently. Rather, it is concerned with pegging that which is not masculine as undesirable. While we debate whether John McDonnell got the job because Corbyn trusted him most or because he is a bloke, we all remain blind to a broader and more pernicious consolidation of liberal masculinity.

When the Cold War “ended” the seeds for the War on Terror were already being sown. Now, in ISIS, it has found every caricature of horror realised. As for Corbyn, he is the only thing more frightening to liberalism than beheadings – he who will not go to war. The imperative of war was deeply embedded in the conception of the liberal state. The white noise of war drums has been sounding ever since. It is in the shadow of war that political obligation is constructed, by exploiting the claims that women – under patriarchy – have on the emotions of men. It is necessary therefore for the liberal state (or its women) to constantly be under threat. For so long, we have been on the cusp of war and it is to this mode of being (one of constant emergency) that Corbyn represents a serious threat.

We should have seen it coming. When the tide turned in Corbyn’s favour and the smears kept rolling in, the salient accusation was not one of racism or extremism but his passivity. From Yvette Cooper’s shift in CLP hustings to more adamantly defining the position of Prime Minister by the ability to “defend” the country (read: militarily) to his Sky Hustings stand-off with Liz Kendall – the contradiction would be as delicious as it is illuminating if it wasn’t so frightening. Kendall and Cooper, the two women in the race, led the most gendered attack – the emasculation of Jeremy Corbyn.

In this view Corbyn is not only passive, he is also irrational. He cannot be rational because the West needs there to be no option but to fight. “In these uncertain times” – when the infantilised Arab other is playing with the toys we left behind  – it is now more important than ever that that which is masculine is ready to fight for the liberal project. As the non-white other is feminised by his irrationality, so too is Corbyn. The anti-imperialist is necessarily queered – Corbyn’s is a masculinity that the hegemon cannot comprehend.

This is why, as a feminist, my interest was most drawn by the announcement that Jeremy has appointed the UK’s first woman Shadow Secretary for Defence, Maria Eagle. I’m fascinated by the contradictions this appointment exposes. The Conservatives are on the offensive, the war machine is readying itself for an intensification of struggle and the carnage of Europe’s sins is landing squarely on its doorstep. The nebulous question of “security” is about to be milked for all it is worth. In the coming months, we must constantly remind ourselves that it is those who have power who determine what is most in need of security – single mothers on benefits or the pockets of arms traders.

Owen Jones, in hindsight, was right to identify that Corbyn will come under attack for being “weak on defence and military action abroad” but he was wrong to think that taking on the language of the military industrial complex will provide any solutions. To shake the core of this patriarchal rot, Jeremy Corbyn must uproot the foundations of the marketplace of morality on which liberal imperialism rests. He must queer the state.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Annie Teriba’s blog, black girl speak


  1. Absolutely right. You aren’t bad or aggressive simply by virtue of being born with a male body or good or gentle simply by virtue of being born with a female body. I cannot understand the idea that Corbyn has given all the best jobs to men. At the core of the state is military force and he has given the Defence job to a woman. Corbyn is not our salvation. Imperialism will either force him to become a supporter of aggression or force him out. Still let us learn from this the need to throw out identity politics nonsense and come up with a politics that actually helps working class women and men, i.e. Marxist politics. No-one seems to have noticed that when the elite wants to oppress members of an oppressed group they tend to get a member of that group to front their efforts. How many working class trade unionists have been put up by the Labour Party to attack workers rights? And look how Harman was driving up and down in her pink van just before telling Labour MPs not to oppose savage benefit cuts for lone parents (90% of whom are women).

  2. Thanks for this Annie! A note in the margin, on masculinity and the military: Tony Blair’s own account of his (and Brown’s) decision to support Trident replacement in 2007 makes interesting reading (mentioned on Kate Hudson’s CND blog yesterday). Blair wrote in his autobiography: ‘On simple, pragmatic grounds there was a case either way’ – for or against renewing Trident – ‘yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation….’ In the end, he claims that he said to Brown: ‘imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I’ve decided to scrap it. We’re not going to say that, are we?’ So all the rational or ‘pragmatic’ arguments either way were overridden by, in effect, macho status anxieties: they would lose face if they gave up the big weapons. If we believe Blair’s account, this was literally the deciding factor in Britain’s current nuclear policy.


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