Feminism is showing signs of life
Feminism has been out of fashion but there are signs that women are becoming activists again, says Cassandra Jardine.
Trafalgar Square on Saturday afternoon was filled with marching women carrying feminist placards. “It’s more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier,” said one. “Turn your back on Page 3,” read another. When speakers called out: “Can you hear me, sister?” voices and arms were raised in enthusiastic response.
These weren’t the ageing remnants of Sixties and Seventies feminism enjoying a retro wallow to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day yesterday. These were young women in Ugg boots with amusingly dyed hair; some of them were wearing make-up.
Just when feminism appeared dead, the corpse is showing signs of life. The march, entitled Million Women Rise, is not the only indication of a pulse, faint at the moment but gaining strength. A rash of new books, including Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls and Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion, has brought women’s issues back into focus, while the campaigning Fawcett Society reports a threefold increase in membership to 8,500 over the last three years.
Even before BBC Four’s three-part series Women, which began yesterday by revisiting the Libbers of old – and what a sparkling bunch they were – the web has been buzzing with feminist sites, and “FEM” conferences were gathering crowds. This week even sees an all-female audience for Question Time – though why Monty Don has been chosen for the panel is unclear. Are the women going to ask about pruning their roses?
Small though these green shoots may look, they are enough to give heart to the old guard. “This feels like a new wave gathering momentum and the women are bringing young men with them,” says Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray. “Feminism is alive and well in important places,” says Joan Bakewell who, at 73, still occasionally wears a T-shirt saying: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
But for many once-proud feminists, recent years have been dismaying. Younger women have not only, understandably, taken for granted their mothers’ and grandmothers’ achievements on equal pay and sex discrimination, contraception and abortion, many have dissociated themselves with feminism altogether.
On the day of the march, for example, Lucy O’Connor, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying: “I'm not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination...” Yet she is trying to gain recognition as one of the world’s top female boxers.
The previous day Erin Baker, the Telegraph’s motoring editor, described a quick poll on feminism conducted among her thirtysomething friends. None, herself included, understood the concept. “If it exists,” she concluded, “feminism has nothing to do with reality.”
Sneering at feminism is so much the norm that Ellie Levenson, 31, felt compelled to fight back by writing The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism. “So many of my contemporaries would say things like: “'I’m not a feminist but…’ and then go on to voice a feminist idea, such as that women should earn as much as men for the same job. I wanted to explain feminism to a new generation.”
Somewhere during the 1980s and 1990s, the women’s movement was driven into the ground by its own success and bossiness. The days when a woman couldn’t take out a mortgage without a man’s signature have gone. Few women who enjoy male company and looking their best wanted to ally themselves with the stereotypical hairy-legged, mannish woman ranting about “patriarchy”.
To revitalise their cause, the new wave of feminists have tried to rebrand themselves as “Shedom-fighters”, “NuFeminists”, “Feministas” and “Womanists”. None of these labels has caught on. Yet the idea that gender heaven has not been achieved has gathered momentum.
Girls may achieve better GCSEs than boys, are pouring into sought-after professions like medicine and are free to act like ladettes, but women are still being paid less, preyed upon by violent men, pressed into forced marriages, and sexualised by commercial forces at a young age. It’s a matter of picking your battle.
Personal experience of violence motivates many of the new activists, who cannot be accused of being “hopelessly middle class”, as Germaine Greer was by a fellow Australian academic last week, in an attack marking the 40th anniversary of The Female Eunuch.
Jobeda Nahar, 27, had to leave home in her teens because her father’s violence was copied by her brother. “I felt I couldn’t be the only woman facing violence at home but there was no information about it at school,” she says. Today she works in a women's centre. She feels strongly about a range of violence-related issues that include the computer game Grand Theft Auto – which not only allows men to go to virtual prostitutes but offers them a range of ways to kill the women – and job centres that advertise positions in lap-dancing clubs.
Sabrina Qureshi, 38, who organised Saturday’s march, was also brought up surrounded by high levels of domestic violence in Whitechapel, and was sexually assaulted at 14. “I thought maybe it was Islamic but I found my white friends were experiencing the same. There are 30 million women in this country; one in three of them has experienced violence. Two women are killed every day. It’s not a woman’s problem, its society’s,” she says.
“Some things have even got worse, like the rape conviction rate,” says Catherine Redfern, founder of The F-word website. Her book, Reclaiming the F-word, comes out later this year. Most rapes don’t even reach the reporting stage, and of those that do, only 7 per cent result in a conviction, according to the Fawcett Society. “That’s unlikely to make a man feel he will be convicted,”
If you want to keep the rights gained from women’s lib, you have to fight or they will be rolled back, ” says Vivienne Hayes, who runs the Women’s Resource Centre, which highlights the fact that women are not equally represented in politics or the boardroom.
Last November, the British Medical Journal published a report that showed that male doctors earned on average £15,000 more than women, with a gender pay gap for both junior doctors and consultants. Jenni Murray thinks feminism’s new focus should be the home, where women still do most of the work and caring, even if they also have a job. “Yes, of course lap-dancing clubs are a pain, and “Come and Get Me” T-shirts being sold to four-year-olds are a pain, and pink clothes sold aggressively to girls, even in M&S, is also a pain. But the really serious stuff is how we balance relationships between men and women. Until we cease to see housework and childcare as women’s work we won’t have true equality. It has to be seen as family work. Until then, employers won’t take women as seriously as men. That’s where the push has to be made.”
“If we want real equality at work we must have equality at home,” agrees Richard Reeves, director of the think tank Demos, who has shared the care of his three children with his wife. “We’ve got to the point where women’s lives have changed profoundly. Now men’s lives have to change. We need equality in maternity and paternity provision. ”
Public sector companies are expected to conduct pay audits to ensure fairness; under the new Equality Bill, and that should extend to large private companies by 2013, but Ceri Goddard of the Fawcett Society believes that women should guard against complacency. “It’s wrong to say younger women don’t care. It’s a question of awareness: 79 per cent of women aged 18-24 whom we polled didn’t realise that public sector cuts would have more impact on women than men because women have 65 per cent of public sector jobs and use the services more because they do 89 per cent of caring.”
“What about women?” is a question she wants all party leaders to address in the run up to the election, looking at the impact of every policy. On Thursday’s Question Time, the interrogation will start.
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