Austin Mitchell and the Feminist Twitter Backlash

By James Aisthorpe

On Monday, Labour MP for Great Grimsby Austin Mitchell said on twitter: “Shut up Menschkin [Louise Mensch MP].A [sic] good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”.

The tweet, which was aimed at Mrs. Mensch’s recent twitter-based spat with her husband, was retweeted 158 times and Mr. Mitchell has received, and deservedly so, a barrage of scorn as a result of what he subsequently described as his low form of wit.

Clearly Mitchell’s tweet has several sexist elements.  Describing an influential female Conservative MP as a “Menschkin” and a “little girl” is abhorrent and it seems unlikely that he would have made similar remarks to any man.  In fact we can be pretty sure he would not, since the tweet was in no way derogatory toward Mensch’s husband, Peter, rather it described him as the “master”.

Even if we accept Mitchell’s explanation that his buffoonish tweet was supposed to be ironic then it nonetheless shows a disturbing lack of sensitivity or empathy toward women’s issues.  There are those who will be quick to accept that it was all just a joke but if it were racist irony that had been tweeted then, at least I hope, it would never be tolerated.

Quite rightly Mensch, who represented the Corby constituency, has demanded an apology, but none has been forthcoming, neither from Mitchell himself nor the Labour Party more generally.

Mitchell later said that his wife had banned him from tweeting for the rest of the day.  In such a context it seems likely that Mitchell was indeed joking, but the saga highlights the ongoing problem of men, and perhaps older men most notably, not taking feminist issues seriously.

Mitchell is 78, and so we should not be surprised that some of his views belong to a different time, or that he lacks some sympathy for the rights issues of this time.  That is not to say the elderly should not be represented in parliament but there is a balancing act to be struck between experience and youth.  Too often politics is left chasing after changes in society and in ethics; progress being held back by outdated views.

But I’d like to return to the reaction on Twitter.  Mitchell received a flood of negative replies to his sexist comments and it was right that Mitchell was called out for them.  I disagree, however, with those who quickly labelled Mitchell a misogynist or a sexist.

While it is one thing to call the original tweet misogynistic it is quite another to label Mitchell himself a misogynist.  Moreover it was probably unhelpful in making Mitchell see his error, by jumping to the erroneous conclusion that Mitchell is an absolute sexist he was forced on to the defensive.

What should, and could, have happened is for Mitchell to have been engaged by feminists wishing to communicate their concerns about his comment in a non-antagonistic way.  Twitter should have helped him see what it was he had done wrong, should have educated him.

So, where do we go from here?  Mitchell must obviously apologise and agree to talk to feminists so as to understand why what he said was so out of touch, but feminists must stop declaring him a misogynist and using his ill-educated tweet as political ammunition.  He may be sexist, but one foolish tweet does not prove that.

The ball is in Mr. Mitchell’s court, he and the Labour Party must make the first move.  If he does not, of course, we can then at the least decide if he has an antipathy towards women’s issues but thus far Twitter has been too reactionary and hasty in its branding of Mitchell.  In the future a more nuanced approach is required if we are to convince people of the importance of women’s issues.  The all guns blazing approach just does not work.

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