Photo by Kieran Frost

No friend indeed

The feminist fix: how to expose mansplainers like Billy Bragg who only pretend to be feminist allies

Artillery Row

“No friend indeed” is the fourth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The third article, on prison facilities for transgender inmates, can be read here.

What do we do, as feminists, about those men who appear to know better than women? I am talking about how some appear to colonise and rewrite feminism, and claim to know better than we do what a woman is. Those of us on the front line of the women’s liberation movement have seen over the years those dudebros that claim to be progressive telling us the best way to achieve our goals. These men are convinced that they can be better feminists than actual feminists.

Take the musician and Billy Bragg as one example. On paper, his politics look spot on: he has been vocal against racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia, which would make him an all-round good guy.

But in his double denim, guitar poised at crotch level, sporting a smug and supercilious expression as he patiently explains that men can also be women, he exposes himself as yet another man who uses the smokescreen of “trans rights” to bash feminists. 

He hit back in the time-honoured tradition of men

Bragg recently announced his efforts to make his lyrics “trans inclusive” by changing his 1991 track “Sexuality” from “Just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away/ If you stick around, I’m sure that we can find some common ground” to “Just because you’re they, I won’t turn you away/ If you stick around, I’m sure that we can find the right pronoun”. This reflects his exasperation at how “so-called feminists” can possibly be “against trans-rights”. When challenged about his nonsense by some feminists, he hit back in the time-honoured tradition of men telling women they know better, even when it comes to issues that profoundly and disproportionately affect us. 

Last year, Bragg involved himself in a row on Twitter about whether or not male bodied trans-women should be allowed to access women only spaces such as refuges, prisons and changing rooms. With no apparent concern for how feminists had built those spaces, and the legal rights to have them, in order to protect ourselves from male violence, Bragg arrogantly proclaimed that he was “a supporter of the rights of self-identifying trans people for the same reason that I am a supporter of women’s rights: because they should not be denied to anyone”. Yes, that’s right, girls: he has decided it is fine to give away our rights to trans identifying males. 

As feminists responded by saying no, men have no right to those spaces, Bragg tweeted: “But surely the equality that women continue to fight for cannot be denied to others?”

It was quite unbelievable that he meant that men should have an equal right to accessing what women have fought for. He classed the so-called equality that women and girls have achieved as “merely privilege” if we did not apply it also to men.

Men like Bragg don’t bother to hide their contempt

A few years earlier, Bragg decided he would define feminism for us, just in case it was better for a penised person to do so. “Let’s remind ourselves… That a feminist is someone who believes in the empowerment of women and girls.” This was surprising as I could not imagine he would, as a supporter of the trades union movement, talk about empowerment of workers rather than challenging the owners and bosses in a capitalist system.

But as us silly women have learned over the years from mansplainers, we really can’t be left alone to decide on such matters.

As I have long argued, the trans-activist movement is simply a smokescreen for men’s rights activism, a way for so-called progressive men to pose as the best feminist allies whilst screaming “witch” and “terf” at those of us who seek to exclude men from the category of women.

Men like Bragg don’t even bother to hide their contempt for women anymore; they position themselves as leaders, and get lots of pats on the back from brothers-in-arms.

Last year, the formidable Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I debated Bragg and Kehinde Andrews on whether or not “cancel culture” existed. Neither of the men appear to have done any research for the hour-long debate, clearly believing that they were so on the right side of history so they just needed to open their mouths and angels would fly out. We women wiped the floor with them, partly because we were right, and partly because we were better at debating than they were arrogance doesn’t serve in this context.

We must expose men who pretend to be feminist allies

Women are raised to seek male approval; the desire to be liked by men is a deep rooted one that is difficult to disentangle ourselves from. We are used to men talking over us and cutting us off before we can make a point. We are raised to be far too polite, and overly accommodating. Often we fume and rage privately about how we have been treated and spoken to. The feminist fix is for women to learn how to let go of the desire to be liked and approved. As feminists we must take equal amounts of time to have our say and refuse to be silenced and patronised. 

I recall doing the press preview on Sky News once with a man who very much liked the sound of his own voice. I tried to fight my corner and did okay, but at the end I heard that the producer said he wouldn’t book me on the programme again because I “interrupted too many times and spoke for too long”.

I was so confused by these allegations that I later watched our slot and did a frame by frame analysis. Not surprisingly, I found that in fact I had been interrupted 14 times compared to my cutting across him only seven times (trying to get a word in), and that he had spoken 65 per cent of the time, leaving me 35 per cent. I sent this information to the producer, and to his credit he apologised.

We have to expose men who pretend to be feminist allies when in fact they are only allies to those women who practice the fun kind of feminism that men benefit from. Whether it’s the support of “sex work“ or the whole “trans-women are women” nonsense, if dudebros support a particular brand of feminism then we must be doing something wrong.

Solving the problem of mansplaining should be straightforward for feminists. We have to challenge their lies and distortions, publicly and loudly, at every possible opportunity. Being polite rarely works for women.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.

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