The Women’s Equality Party has launched a petition to have Mark Field stripped of his position as an MP, after he was suspended as a Foreign Office minister in June for grabbing a female Greenpeace activist around the neck. Here, writer Harriet Williamson argues that his actions that night were truly inexcusable.
On 20 June 2019, at a black tie Mansion House event where Philip Hammond was giving his annual speech, a man was accused of violently assaulting a woman.
He aggressively grabbed her, pushed her into a pillar and manhandled her from the room, one hand around her neck. The man was Mark Field, former Foreign Office minister for Asia and the Pacific. The woman was Janet Barker, a Greenpeace activist who was protesting for more decisive action on climate change. Following the incident, Field was suspended from his position, and there have been calls for him to resign. The Women’s Equality Party have launched a petition to have him removed as a Member of Parliament, stating in an open letter to Field that, “Violent people have no place in Parliament. Constituents should have the power to trigger a by-election where their MP has assaulted someone.”
City of London police are now investigating “a number of third-party reports of a possible assault”.
Beyond the confines of black tie events, violence against women is commonplace and widespread, from assaults through to sexual assault to stalking. In England and Wales, one in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Two women every week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales, and 1.2 million women reported domestic abuse in the year ending March 2016. This final figure is believed to be a gross underestimation as victims often suffer in silence.
Mark Field’s actions on the night of 20 June are no anomaly. Instead, they are part of a tapestry of disrespect, misogyny and abuse that women are forced to live with, some from the very moment of their birth.
Mere weeks before, Field had given a speech about the rights of women to be safe from harm so they can speak freely. The free speech of the Greenpeace activist was certainly not honoured in this situation.
Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, right wing commentators and male Tory politicians seemed to feel that Field’s ‘instinctive’ actions were somehow justified, in the process cherry-picking who is and isn’t permitted their right to freedom of expression.
Conservative MP Johnny Mercer defended Field with the tweet: “Honestly? Try being in our shoes in the current environment.
“He panicked, he’s not trained in restraint and arrest, and if you think this is ‘serious violence’ you may need to recalibrate your sensitivities. Calm down, move on, and be thankful this wasn’t worse.”
Mercer was yet another man telling women to ‘calm down’ and ‘stop being so sensitive’, inferring that the assault just ‘wasn’t that bad’ and even more perniciously, could have been worse. How much worse do things need to get before we take violent actions against women, and particularly a woman engaged in a peaceful protest, seriously?
Other Conservative MPs argued that we wouldn’t even have been having the conversation if Field had been a female MP. However, outrage at their actions would still be pertinent because violence is always unacceptable, whether you feel frightened of someone or not.
What do these defences of Field say about the nature of the party currently in Number 10? During her time in office, Theresa May made some attempts to depict the Conservatives as a party that cares about women’s safety. She introduced a new domestic violence bill and supported Gina Martin’s campaign to outlaw upskirting. But her party also presided over brutal cuts to domestic violence services and a cruel and shambolic austerity agenda, which has been proven to disproportionately affect women.
Mercer’s comment about the ‘current environment’ is very telling. Yes, online abuse of politicians and dissatisfaction with the status quo is at an all time high. But does that justify those in public office reacting with violence in the face of non-violent actions?
When Esther McVey’s campaign event was interrupted by a male protester, was he violently assaulted? He was not.
When Jeremy Corbyn was punched in the face by a man holding an egg in his fist, did he react with ‘instinctive’ violence? He did not.
What we see here is a large, powerful man assaulting a much smaller, unarmed woman. Even if Field was genuinely afraid or intimidated by her presence, there are many ways that he could have escorted her from the room without resorting to violence. This is indisputable. Also, if Field truly believed that the protester was armed, as he said in a statement he released, why would he grab her around the neck, leaving both of her hands free?
This is an issue of rampant class privilege and misogyny, where the ruling elite feel entitled to behave exactly as they wish.
Women should have the right to live their lives, move in public spaces and engage in peaceful protest without the threat of violence from men like Mark Field. We must not allow conservative pundits and those who wish to justify assaults on women normalise his actions. Their responses are a wholly disturbing attempt to make violence against women appear like a rational response. It is not, and never will be.
Field’s ‘unreserved’ apology is not good enough. Sign the petition to have him removed as an MP.
Main image: Mark Field Facebook page