How does today’s struggling pressure group make the transition to tomorrow’s well-heeled social partner and purveyor of orthodoxy? In two ways: by setting itself up as a supplier of independent advice, and by infiltrating schools.
One organisation that has managed both these things with panache is Stonewall. Once a fringe LGBT ginger group, this slightly creepy outfit now has a sizeable corporate client base and has (as Caroline Farrow observed on Tuesday’s TCW) managed to invade even religious schools in a big way. A Church of England report targeted at faith schools and aimed at suppressing traditional ideas of marriage and child-rearing turned out to have been partly written by two senior Stonewall executives, who needless to say did not identify themselves as such. At the same time it transpired that the Catholic Education Service’s guidance for its own schools on the issue of LGBT matters was largely copied from Stonewall’s own literature. And this is without Stonewall’s open attempts to influence how schools are run and what is taught in them, which are considerable and worrying, but will have to wait for another TCW post.
It’s not only Stonewall, though. The Everyday Sexism Project, currently a volunteer advocacy group with members worldwide, seems to have ambitions to become a more general advice group to the great and the good. It has already, it seems, provided advice to Transport for London on misbehaviour on the Tube, and last week it reached the pinnacle of the establishment. Young and go-getting Eton headmaster Simon Henderson, a man with a reputation for being blunt-talking and sensible, let slip that as part of his drive to make the boys in his charge gender-intelligent he had invited ESP founder Laura Bates BEM to provide talks on sex equality issues.
What’s the harm, you might say, in getting everybody’s favourite women’s equality expert to educate Eton on equality? Actually, quite a lot. For a start, a glance at her project’s website reveals that it is, to say the least, one-dimensional. It’s essentially a series of stories – unchecked – about gripes at men, ranging last month from rape to bottom-squeezing in nightclubs to not being chosen for the works football team. Ms Bates’s weekly column in the Guardian is not much more inspiring. It is largely composed of unoriginal, vaguely feminist agitprop such as is discussed in comprehensive school staff-rooms up and down the country every day, and it concerns matters frankly pretty trivial – one week lambasting Conservative MP Philip Davies for being doubtful about compulsory wall-to-wall sex education, another getting uptight about Nick Clegg’s high-powered wife being referred to as Mrs Clegg, waxing furious about the pinkness of Barbie’s accessories or the price of the morning-after pill, or counting the percentages of women featured on Wikipedia and the number of words they get.
But this is not all. The real difficulty with the ESP, as Belinda Brown pointed out on TCW as long ago as 2015, is its negativity. It does not celebrate, as a balanced feminist advocacy body might be expected to, the many areas where women do as well as or better than men – not only in terms of entry into elite professions such as law and medicine, but their better record in school, in the suicide and homeless statistics, and elsewhere. Instead, the relentless message pumped out by this organisation is one of universal victimhood. Women are structurally subjugated, always the underdogs, owing to things done, or attitudes held, by men. Such an approach has two pernicious effects. One is to skew society’s view of men. Innocent statements morph into sinister manifestations of sexism, as in the case of suggestions that it might be wise for women to take precautions against getting drunk with boyfriends they do not know very well, or light-hearted (and probably true) suggestions that women researchers are more likely to interrupt projects by taking time off to look after children. And trivial matters such as the occasional hand on the knee, which in the past would have been pushed away or slapped and then forgotten, are inflated out of all proportion and pompously referred to as serious matters of assault. The other effect, ironically, is to harm the interests of women. As more sophisticated and sensible feminists such as Camille Paglia have pointed out, encouraging men to regard women as victims deserving sympathy, rather than as people able to earn respect in exactly the same way as the rest of us, is not the best way forward for those who believe in genuine equality.
The glory of Eton has for many years lain not so much in its elite status, but in the fact that it is a very good school. With all the resources at its disposal, it rightly spares no effort to produce young men who are well-rounded, thoughtful and informed. By all means accept that in 2017 this means educating the boys who pass through it about the problems of sexual equality. But preferably not through the incomplete, distorted and at times frankly naive approach to the subject adopted by the ESP and Ms Bates. Schools such as Eton, to put it bluntly, ought to be able to do better than this.