Boris Johnson: feminist or misogynist?
For a self-proclaimed feminist, he’s made a lot of offensive remarks. At a time when women are still financially, politically and socially disadvantaged, the Prime Minister must create equal opportunities, not crack jokes, if he wants to prove his feminist credentials.
Boris Johnson is interesting because the emotional imperatives that drive him threaten to overwhelm him. That is why he is a great campaigner: he is watchable. I saw him promise things to women in Romford and Docklands in the mayoral and leadership campaigns. He lowered his eyes and spoke in a halting voice, as if this were the first instalment in a novel about seduction and betrayal. I thought he was unserious.
When his general election campaign culminated in a parody of Love Actually in which he encouraged a female voter not to tell her husband of his presence while he displayed Brexit-related signage, I knew he was.
Is he a feminist? He thinks he is, particularly compared to Dominic Raab, whose declaration during the leadership race that he isn’t prompted Johnson’s that he is. But thinking isn’t being – and being more feminist than Dominic Raab, who once said, “Feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots”, is not a triumph. It is, rather, cause for laughter.
He compared Hillary Clinton, who is a feminist, to Lady Macbeth, who is a psychopath
It is true Johnson once wore a t-shirt that said, “A woman’s place is in the House of Commons,” (the phrasing made me wince, though I agreed). And he has asked for gender parity in the Tory parliamentary party though he cannot manage it in his cabinet, which is only one quarter female, as is his parliamentary party. (In Labour it is more than half.)
His writings are not those of a feminist: they are the writings of a man who wants to be liked by men he has dreamt up in his head. The female character in his novel Seventy-Two Virgins is a fantasy, a collection of body parts.
He wrote that a Tory government would make women’s breasts larger, and that may be true in some circumstances: food poverty can make you fat. He also said a Tory government would bring you a BMW. Are the breasts and the BMW similar commodities?
He compared Hillary Clinton, who is a feminist, to Lady Macbeth, who is a psychopath. He said Malaysian women went to university to find husbands. He said that women only achieved suffrage because men feared they would run them down with cars.
During the 2012 Olympics he reported “semi-naked women” playing beach volleyball on Whitehall “glistening like wet otters”. In isolation, each might be a joke. Together, they are misogyny.
Even when his instincts might be correct, he flounders. He does not like the burka, for instance. Nor do I but having read Seventy-Two Virgins, which contains many racial slurs, I think it may be for different reasons. His intervention – he called women who wear it “letterboxes” – did not offer succour to Muslim women who do not want to wear the burka. It incited violence towards Muslim women who do.
Too much has been written about the relationships Johnson has with women who should not matter politically – his girlfriends, his wives, his children – and too little is written about his policies towards women who do: the electorate. Was the Love Actually pastiche a clue: that he would treat the latter as he treats the former?
It seems so. You are a feminist if your policy is feminist and Johnson has no time yet for women’s dull and peculiar needs: for abortion (he has abstained on every vote); for childcare (the third most expensive in Europe); for gender parity (a dream); for protection from men (domestic violence has soared under the pandemic).
The politics of austerity and the pandemic have disproportionately harmed women. Research shows that the electorate is proud of British gains in gender equality. If he wants to keep women on side, Johnson should chase them. He is good at that, at least.
Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist and writer at The Spectator.