Jess Phillips: an establishment feminist
In Everywoman, Phillips shows she’s more mainstream than rebel.
I imagine sharing a bottle of Prosecco with Jess Phillips would be a right laugh. Despite disagreeing with almost every word of the Labour MP’s just released book, Everywoman: One woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth, it still has an exuberance that’s irrepressible. At the very least, I’d rather be trapped in a lift with her than, say, the simpering Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism fame. Phillips could probably be relied upon to whip out a crafty fag and regale me with instructions: ‘Never trust the polls … don’t say that sentence out loud. I have in the past, and to an untrained ear it sounds as if you belong in Ukip.’
We’d spend our time in the lift discussing parenting, one of the few areas where Phillips talks sense: ‘For some reason, we all sign up to the idea that women are doing something sacred in a baby’s first year that no one else could manage.’ ‘I was mainly crying and eating six Bakewell tarts in one sitting, which to be fair is a habit my son has picked up’, she writes. You can’t imagine she has much truck with gluten intolerances and sugar fasts. Phillips even takes the breastfeeding obsessives to task: ‘I know all the statistics about how natural birth is safer and how breast is best, but up and down the country new moms are weeping over the heads of their newborns because they can’t get the hang of breastfeeding and have for some reason been led to believe by some crappy meme on Facebook that if they give them baby formula they will basically be feeding them crack.’
Everywoman doesn’t appear to have been written at all, but dictated as and when time and inspiration came together, and then transcribed, perhaps by someone else. It’s pretty much a stream of consciousness where little seems to be off-limits and one thought sparks off a detour into an anecdote on something else entirely. This is not a criticism. Phillips’ fast-paced autobiography/feminist manifesto/Labour Party apologetic comes, at first, as a breath of fresh air. This is mainly because the star, ‘a heroine’ according to J K Rowling, has no time to waste on false modesty. ‘I deserve a massive wedge of credit for my own success’, she tells us straight away. ‘I don’t mean to brag, but I count myself in the cool crowd. I was your classic popular kid at school.’ When we’ve become so used to talented, famous and beautiful women parading their insecurities at every turn, revelling in their anxieties, eating disorders and struggles with mental health problems, this is a blast.
But there’s a massive contradiction at the heart of Everywoman and the more I read, the more it began to grate. The ‘truth’ revealed by Phillips – a woman whose gobbiness and self-confidence are, by her own admission, off the scale and have earned her a seat in parliament, a media profile and a book deal – is that women’s voices are delegitimised and infantilised. The key message of Everywoman, told and retold in umpteen different ways, is that ‘Women have a rough deal in society’. ‘We get beaten, abused and raped more often’, Phillips informs us. ‘It’s crap that caring responsibilities still mostly fall to us, and our razors and deodorant cost more because they are pink.’ Yes, we really do move from rape to the cost of pink razor blades in the space of a sentence. Phillips is clearly, and brilliantly, no victim, yet her message is that to be a woman is to be abused, and we’re all in need of heroine Jess to come and rescue us. If we don’t realise it yet then this book is here to tell us.
Sadly, it seems that the more Phillips talks about women having a rough deal, the more she comes to internalise the message. Her advice to her 16-year-old self, the bolshy, stroppy madam she once was, is: ‘You are nowhere near as good as you think you are. Take yourself down a peg or two.’ ‘The things I bragged about while smoking fags around the back of the gym should have been shared with the police instead’, the now contrite Phillips informs us. She is the antithesis of Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders star who hit the headlines in 2015 for standing by her misspent youth and saying she was responsible for putting herself in the situation that led to her rape. Phillips, in contrast, pays penance through going round schools talking to young people ‘about rape and sexual exploitation’.
One thing missing from Phillips’ tales of her youth is any notable interest in politics. Beyond the revelation that her family had always voted Labour and her dad was a committed socialist, there are no stories of political books or speeches that inspired her. There are no descriptions of demonstrations attended or left-wing newspapers read. There’s no sense that she attended political meetings or sat up all night defending any particular principles. If Phillips struggled ideologically to work out where she stands on different issues or tried out other left-wing parties for size, it’s not covered here.
Phillips jokes that in 2010, when she decided to stand for election, she wasn’t even a member of the Labour Party. Rather than being driven by political ideals, the decision to stand for Labour is presented as part happy accident, part logical career move: ‘I thought, I reckon I can do a better job of this.’ The move from manager of a Women’s Aid charity to Labour MP seems more continuity than disjuncture; the chief requirement of both being public displays of empathy with victims. ‘Every time I stand up in the House of Commons, I try to speak for people who are forgotten’, Phillips tells us, ‘I try to adjust attitudes and end prejudices’. This ability to alternate pity and contempt in equal measure makes Phillips a perfect match for a Labour Party unable to connect with working-class people who do not see themselves as in need of either protection or re-education.
Phillips loves to present herself as an outsider, a rebel. Her happiest moment seems to have been when fellow Labour MP Harriet Harman told her, ‘You will never be popular’. What winds her up most about Brexit is that, in backing Remain, she’s been labelled as part of the establishment, something she assumes her gender and accent automatically preclude. Yet Phillips’ views put her firmly on the same side as Tony Blair, George Osborne, Richard Branson and Gina Miller.
Phillips’ brand of ‘women are victims’ feminism is also entirely mainstream. Having been elected through one of Labour’s contrived all-women shortlists, Phillips is quick to defend them. She says that women need positive discrimination because of ‘our continued existence within a patriarchal society’, and offers an argument along the lines of: women are brilliant, but wicked men try and stop us succeeding so we need extra help just to level the playing field. This not only patronises women and demonises men, but the prior assumption, that women have a different political outlook, that they are more caring and sensitive to injustice, reinforces sexist stereotypes.
Phillips hit the headlines at the beginning of 2016 following the comments she made in response to the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne. In attempting to defend the migrant communities held responsible, Phillips argued this groping and abuse of women happened in Birmingham every Saturday night. And there we have it, the cocky rebel’s view of ordinary people: helpless, vulnerable women and marauding, predatory men. This makes Phillips far more of an establishment figure than she might like to admit.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.
Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth, by Jess Phillips, is published by Hutchinson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).