In 1955, a black Mississippi teenager named Emmett Till was lynched after a white woman accused him of sexually harassing her at her place of work. The harassment was a lie concocted by the woman, Carolyn Bryant, to justify a heinous act of racial terrorism. She was not the first white woman to weaponise her white womanhood and the fears of women to uphold white supremacy, but her story is the most visceral. As long as modern conceptions of race have existed, white women have been instrumental in meting out and legitimising racial violence, whether as the face of missionary movements in Australia that subjected aboriginal people or the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.
This is only one illustration of how women’s fears are weaponised by bad faith actors to legitimise state overreach, as also seen in the attempts of transphobic women and men to force trans people out of public toilets with criminalisation efforts, or in efforts to wield border patrol and anti-migrant rhetoric against sex workers. In a generous interpretation, the feminists who pursue these campaigns are simply ignorant to the devastating impact of increased policing on women, BAME, and working class communities. In a less generous (but more realistic) appraisal, bourgeois white women have worked hard to make it appear as though the only solutions to gendered violence come from within the confines of the carceral state.
Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird recounts, in part, the story of Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of rape by a white woman, Mayella Ewell. There, Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father — otherwise portrayed as a stupid man — shows a keen understanding that the invocation of women’s fears of sexual assault is a sharp tool for enacting state-sanctioned violence against black men. So ingrained is the relationship between violence against women and the white supremacist state, that even a man who cannot read or write knows exactly how and when to invoke it to devastating effect. To Kill A Mockingbird is a legendary book, a staple on reading lists in American public schools and routinely listed as one of the best books in the English language; the lessons contained within it cannot be derided as obscure interpretations hidden away in the Ivory Tower, they are as mainstream as can be.
This is why in light of the murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly at the hands of a Metropolitan Police officer, it is so galling to see calls for an increase in policing and an expansion of criminality. The Labour Party’s gutless leader, Keir Starmer, has interpreted the news that a woman had been abducted off the street by a police officer as a moment to call for more police on the streets, in much the same way that one might accidentally brush their fingers across an open fire, notice that it is hot and causes blistering pain, only to
immediately stick their entire head into it. SNP MP Hannah Bardell called a 6pm curfew for men “something worth considering”, in what was easily the most tone deaf and viscerally repulsive response after Sir Keir’s.
A curfew is, to be perfectly clear, an untenably stupid and dangerous response. It is not worth implementing, it is not worth considering, and the very fact that it has been floated at all is a confirmation that the feminist movement is in sore need of a come-to-Jesus moment over its collaboration with the carceral state. At its most basic level, a curfew on men raises the obvious issue that proponents of this utterly inane idea have forgotten: men work. Men work unsociable hours at pubs that close after six, at grocery stores that require night-time restocking so that they can be usable in the morning, as overnight paramedics, and as carers. If a curfew were to be instituted with an exception for workers, the number of exceptions would be so numerous as to render the whole thing useless anyways.
Even if taken as a satirical thought exercise, the call for a curfew reveals the most dangerous instincts of bourgeois feminists, which is to attempt to wrangle control of the levers of the capitalist state to dole out violence that they deem, through impressive mental gymnastics, sufficiently feminist. Enforcement of a curfew by nature demands enforcers, and enforcers of the law in this and most countries are the police — the same group of people from whence Sarah Everard’s alleged murderer hails! And, besides allegedly murdering Sarah Everard, what else are the police famous for? Yes — being racist! And thus we come full circle to the murder of Emmett Till, motivated by the fears of white women.
This is not to say that women’s fears of gendered violence are unfounded. They are emphatically not; gendered violence is undoubtedly an epidemic. However, we need to be precise about what type of violence women face and where so as to formulate an effective response. Women are just as likely to be assaulted in their homes as on the street, which is a problem in no way addressed by confining men — under threat of prison — to their homes for longer stretches of time. Nor would violence against women would be solved by putting more police out on the streets, given that the police and the courts are already unable to adequately deal with violence against women, despite budget increases over the past three years. Police and the courts, then, are obviously not the solution.
The feminist movement — as a collective struggle encompassing all genders and none — must be prepared to reckon with its white supremacy problem, and its tendency to indulge carceral solutions to problems that cannot be solved with more cops and more prisons. The solution requires an unequivocal break with liberal feminist orthodoxy, it requires a serious reckoning with the fact that the bourgeois patriarchal state does not exist to defend women and, as such, must be dismantled, not reformed. In particular, the feminist movement in Britain’s constituent nations needs to embrace republicanism as a core value and to recognise that patriarchy cannot be subverted by the hands of passive subjects. Instead, feminists need to engage in radical consciousness-raising, empowering people as active citizens of the state in whose hands the power to decide the future rests.