This book starts from the perspective of Jo Swinson’s own experiences as a young woman in the male dominated sphere of politics. The author, a Scottish Liberal Democrat MP and deputy leader of the party, writes of her growing realisation that her comments on gender inequality were not misinterpreted by the media because she had framed or expressed them badly, but because of the ‘endemic problem’ of gender inequality in British society; the very problem she was trying to articulate was limiting her ability to effect change.
The book is part memoir, of a sort, of her career in politics to date; part manifesto; and partly an ‘action plan’, as each chapter ends with a series of suggestions of actions that individuals can follow to make the world around them more equal.
The book has a number of strengths, including a sense of utility and purpose. The different chapters cover politics, childhood, bodies, parenting, work, culture, sport, violence and men, and mostly do a good job of exploring the key areas of British (and sometimes global) society that might offer particular challenges to women.
There are topics that are omitted – education, for example, as a distinct area from ‘Childhood’, might have been interesting; and ‘work’ might have been usefully partnered with a broader section on money. But no book can cover every idea and the topics that are addressed have been sensibly selected.
In addition, there is a meaningful and sensitive attempt to be intersectional, and a clear recognition that race, gender identity and religion will impact women’s lives in overlapping ways. The material on trans rights, the black natural hair movement or the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in India in 2012, feels natural and authentic.
The book pays lip service to the idea that class also has an impact on women’s lives – but there is less meaningful engagement with the ways in which class structures and the machinations of capitalism interact with and exacerbate gendered inequalities for some women. And the focus on women in the boardroom, in Parliament and in elite sports serves to further distance the message from working class women who face very different struggles.
Feminism necessarily entails engaging with patriarchy and trying to bring about gender equality therefore involves both a systemic approach to inequality and the recognition that structural gender oppression makes it difficult for individual women (or men) to resist gender inequality as individuals.
The most powerful chapters in the book focus on violence – which is a difficult and necessary read – and on sport and culture, because they engage clearly with the broader contexts in which these inequalities are experienced. The material on parenting and childhood and families is less powerful, not because it’s not important – these topics are extremely important in the fight for gender equality, not least because they provide daily battlegrounds for many of these issues – but because the work on these topics doesn’t deal explicitly enough with the structural issues around these things.
At the beginning of the book, the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act is highlighted and the history of the women’s movement is briefly covered through the life story of Swinson’s grandmother Gladys. More explicit engagement with this historical context would have been useful, to convey how Swinson sees this contemporary moment set against a longer history of women’s activism.
Gender equality and feminist action is an evergreen issue, not a passing fad; but the book’s release is undoubtedly timely in the wake of the ‘#MeToo’ revelations about sexual harassment and abuse across industries and cultures. There is some specific engagement with this issue in politics and the Liberal Democrats in particular – for example the party’s inadequate handling of the numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard (the Liberal party Chief Executive 2003-09) and sexual harassment in politics more widely.
It would be interesting to think about how this book might differ if it had been written a year later. Would there be more engagement with the structures of patriarchy that ensure that behaviour like that of Rennard is both enabled and covered up?
Swinson avoided putting feminism on the front cover, which sadly probably makes sense from a commercial perspective. But if a book that aims to bring about gender equality cannot even explicitly refer to feminism in its title or blurb, what does this mean for a serious and political discussion of the issues faced by women today?
Solidarity without risk is meaningless. The book will doubtless be useful and stimulating for girls and women coming to these arguments for the first time, but it would have been good to see a deeper engagement with the intellectual and political arguments behind gender inequality in British society.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.
Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen, by Jo Swinson is published by Atlantic Books. 383 pp. £16.99.