And So the Radical Vagina was Most Patriarchal of Them All

This Summer, the trajectory of the Jeremy Corbyn surge has been mirrored by the most fascinating but also irritating brand of cuntpolitik. 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 was feeling all cunted out. Then it got worse, the cuntpolitik 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 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 the ‘bold’ portfolio of cuntpolitik 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.

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.

Edit: the article was written in the early hours of Monday morning when reports emerged that Gloria De Piero had been appointed shadow Defence Secretary. Since then the shadow cabinet has been reworked with the position now going to Maria Eagle. The article has been edited accordingly.


See specifically: R Westbrook, ’I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James’: American Women and the Problem of Political Obligation in World War II, American Quarterly (Dec., 1990)

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9 thoughts on “And So the Radical Vagina was Most Patriarchal of Them All

  1. Pingback: And so the radical vagina was most patriarchal of them all | rs21

    • Hey Sarah, I was trying quite hard not to come across as pretentious but also realise that people may not be familiar with all the material I was using. I’m happy to give more explanation if there was a section you found particularly unclear.

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  2. Good post – thanks – esp liked the line abt ‘the emasculation’ – not the sort of thing our MSM would ever draw attenion to.

    nb -I think he swapped De Piero for Maria Eagle at the last minute (or twas mis-reported).

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  3. how are you using the “radical vagina” thing here? Is it about sarcastically pointing out the implicit essentialism in the idea that “any woman will do, just get some women into the party” – i.e. the implicit claim that theres something special about women that will make everything magically more feminist? Coz’ I haven’t seen the woman candidates themselves explicitly invoking the idea that it’s their sex, not their gender, which makes them suitable. They’re doing liberal feminist essentialism of some kind but they’re not saying “vagina = woman”.

    given the history of cis feminists using this kind of snark to do transmisogyny through things like, “vagina power” and “would you have fired me if I’d had a dick?” (though I know these are typically white politics too), I feel pretty sketchy about cis women using snark like “your vagina isn’t radical” without spelling out that they’re not the ones equating “vagina” with “woman”. If you’re criticising essentialism by sarcastically using essentialist language, I think that has to be spelled out to take away plausible deniablity from other transmisogynists.

    white trans woman feminist here, btw – so might I be missing some kind of understanding between black trans women and black cis women, or some call back to “radical vagina” talk in the past which means some of what you’re saying is going past me?

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  4. This is a great piece and the point about Diane Abbott is very very true. It’s particularly uncomfortable that she was at *exactly the same time* running to be the mayoral candidate and no one seemed to say or write anything .

    Just thought I’d point out that you accidentally wrote “mobilised” twice at the end of the first paragraph. Obviously doesn’t affect the quality of the piece or anything, just thought I’d mention it…

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