A bold feminist act

The new Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is the first
piece of proposed law reform on domestic violence for a generation.
According to solicitor general Harriet Harman, it is a signal that
the government means business on this most terrifying of daily

The bill is not without its difficulties at this early stage. The
government has not – yet – resolved whether to abolish the defence
of provocation to a murder charge that has, historically, been used
in radically different ways by male and female defendants. There is
also strong opposition to a provision in the new bill that will
allow the courts to issue a “stay away order” to an allegedly
abusive partner, even where he or she has been acquitted of any

Leaving these teething problems aside, should we see the bill, as
some have argued, as proof that weary new Labour can still claim to
be a feminist government? Or does it tell us something much more
narrow about political process, and the role that one individual
politician can have on a largely intransigent administration?

Over the past few decades there has been an irreversible shift in
attitudes to domestic violence. Modern public opinion is largely
united in regarding it as nothing to do with the so-called natural
ebb and flow of male-female relationships and everything to do with
a gross abuse of power and trust.

Even more significant in political terms is the fact that with the
decline of a public feminist critique and yet, paradoxically, the
seeping of feminist analysis into mainstream thinking, domestic
violence has become detached as an issue from the politics of the
family. Thus, everyone on the political spectrum, from Blair to
Bush, The Guardian to the Daily Mail, can unite
in heartily condemning it, without seeming to undermine the nuclear

Once upon a time, male violence was seen as a result of an economic
and social imbalance between the sexes; now it is seen as an almost
psychopathic aberration.

Even so, I doubt that many other Labour solicitor generals would
have acted on this general revulsion for such a widespread crime.
There’s some irony in the fact that it took a sacked feminist
-ÊHarman was ditched as secretary of state for social security
in spring 1998 after her part in the debacle surrounding the cut in
single parent benefit -Êwho was given a second chance by her
somewhat contrite leader, to bring women’s concerns to the centre
of government.

Harman has acted both simply and boldly. Yes, she has been helped
by the new consensus on domestic violence, which, in effect, means
that, as long the disputed provisions are ironed out, this bill
will not risk losing the government public support. But it is still
a feminist act by a feminist minister who derived her boldness from
the very fact of her demotion. Once a key part of the Blair
project, now she is merely a minister. She has managed, in a manner
of speaking, to turn tragedy into triumph.

Sadly, Harman’s initiative is an exception that proves the rule.
Women have not fared particularly well in Blair’s government: Mo
Mowlam, Clare Short and Estelle Morris have all gone, for a variety
of reasons. Of those remaining, their politics are best
characterised, like those of their male colleagues, by a rather
bland loyalty.

The only self-referring feminist left at the top of government is
Harman’s friend and ally Patricia Hewitt. The formidably bright
Hewitt is trying to mix her role as secretary of state for trade
and industry with the oft derided post of minister for women by
finding initiatives that mix a softly-softly feminism with the
economic needs of big- and medium-sized businesses.

Thus, there have been some minor reforms to maternity and paternity
provision, some interesting moves on auditing the pay of government
departments and new encouragement to top women in business.

But where failure was Harman’s unexpected spur, success may prove
to be Hewitt’s greatest foe. For she must continually prove to
Blair, an instinctive anti-feminist, that she has no intention of
disturbing the status quo on matters of family and work.

Yet it is worth reminding ourselves that an initiative like the new
bill on domestic violence would have been seen in the pastas
politicians straying into the private realm of the family with its
own rules and power arrangements. It may be decades before we see
the current challenge to the so-called “naturalness” of women’s
other roles at home and work find confirmation on the statute

Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.

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