Roundtable: Where now for Feminism?
by Ian Sinclair
With high profile campaigns such as Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 gaining significant media coverage, what is being called ‘fourth wave feminism’ found its feet in 2013. Ian Sinclair spoke to five feminist campaigners about the current health of feminism in the UK and what its priorities should be in the year ahead.
Cath Elliott, Feminist Activist
I can’t remember which wave of feminism we’re supposed to be in now – the third wave, the fourth, the fifth? – but whichever it is we’ve certainly seen an upsurge in feminist activism over the past few years, and an increase in the numbers of younger women being prepared to define themselves as feminists. Sadly though this inspirational resurgence of the feminist movement hasn’t yet led to any of the original aims of the women’s liberation movement being met.
Equal pay, decent and affordable – preferably free – childcare, none of these issues have gone away; meanwhile the prevalence of rape, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violence against women overshadows any gains we think we might have made. Similarly, while abortion was made legal in this country in 1967, ever since then there have been concerted attempts to deny women their reproductive rights, and so the fight for access to safe, legal abortion goes on.
I suppose that’s the long-winded way for me to say that I think feminism’s future has to basically be a repeat of feminism’s past, because while women’s oppression may be packaged differently nowadays, the harsh reality is that the substance of that oppression remains the same, and the battles we were fighting back in the second wave are still to be won.
Scarlet Harris, TUC Women’s Officer
We need feminism as much, if not more, than ever. I don’t subscribe to the idea that feminism has been dormant for decades and only just been re-born by a new generation of young women. Whilst I admire young media-savvy, campaigning feminists, we are all indebted to my mother’s generation who have been campaigning for gender equality since the 60s. The tenacity and drive of trade union women in fighting for equal pay, affordable and accessible childcare, challenging discrimination, sexual harassment and violence against women, defending women’s right to free and safe abortions, and breaking down gender stereotypes in the workplace, has never dwindled.
Feminism has made great strides but we have a long way to go. Years of a slow, steady progress on closing the gender pay gap have gone into reverse. Women working full-time still earn, on average, around £5,000 a year less than men. Over one in four women are paid less than the living wage, while 30,000 lose their jobs every year due to pregnancy discrimination. Sky-high childcare costs continue to make work unaffordable for many women.
We shouldn’t accept the false choice between an ‘old’ feminism that focuses on women’s labour market position and a ‘new’ feminism that focuses on violence against women, sexual harassment and representations of women in the media. Feminism does and should encompass all of these things.
Charlie Woodworth, Fawcett Society
Despite many years of progress, the UK remains deeply unequal. Women are typically poorer than men, taking home an average 16 per smaller pay packet and dominating the ranks of the low paid. We are under-represented in positions of power and influence across public life, most startlingly in politics – almost 80 per cent of our MPs are male, the proportion of women in parliament has increased by just 3.7 per cent since 2000. Violence, or the threat of it, is still an everyday reality for many women – two women a week are killed by current or ex partners. The age of austerity is worsening the situation, as women are forced to act as shock absorbers for dramatic and unprecedented cuts to public spending – around three quarters of the money saved from capping and cutting welfare will come from women’s pockets.
Challenging these and other persistent inequalities requires action on several fronts. In the run up to the 2015 election, where women’s votes will have a decisive impact, we must hold the different parties to account on how their plans will affect women – our safety, our financial security, our general power and influence. The recent surge in online activism, in particular the groundswell of feminist noise, must work to ensure women’s rights are front and centre of the political debate in this crucial window of opportunity.
Alison Winch, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Middlesex University and author of Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood.
Feminism is a collective movement – however contested – and this is critical in a culture that promotes the myth of the competitive individual. Relationships are central to feminism, both in the way that feminists forge alliances with each other, but also when looking at the way that women regulate and police each other, especially around the body and sexuality. Neoliberal patriarchy has a female face, whether this is the hyper successful of companies like Facebook or Yahoo – or the fictional media representations of powerful women. It is also expressed in the language of empowerment, enablement, agency, choice. But often women’s success is dependent on the exploitation of other women. Consequently, feminisms that promote a neoliberal agenda inevitably deepen divisions between women. Feminism has a memory and a history of contesting capitalism. The conflicts that feminists experienced need to be revisited, but in a different frame. Rather than seeing them as failures, we need to see them as necessary to politics which, for it to work, must involve debate and acknowledge differences. The way that we relate through class, race, sexual identity and disability need to be taken up again, learnt from, developed, talked about (and this is happening). Coming from a position of dis-identification (rather than using the tired metaphor of a sisterhood) would be useful to open the space for more feminists to have a voice and to be heard. Conflict and disagreement can be generative, creative and productive when taken outside familial frames such as sisterhood and used to challenge capitalism.
Rahila Gupta, Southall Black Sisters
It has never been clearer, than at this historical conjuncture when neo-liberalism is unravelling, that feminism cannot win its struggle for women’s rights without also undertaking a social, political and economic transformation to restore fundamental equalities and rights to other disempowered groups. The recent resurgence of feminist activity is recognition of the fact that some of the freedoms achieved by women were illusory; this was crystallised by the austerity measures introduced to deal with the financial crisis, the impact of which fell disproportionately on women. The vacuum left by a much diminished state, although paternalistic and patriarchal, is being filled by religious forces stepping in to provide services within an ethos that is detrimental to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Many of the issues are the same but the contexts have changed, possibly for the worse. At Southall Black Sisters, we have been pointing out the dangers of religious fundamentalism for women and sexual minorities since the early 90s against the backdrop of the Salman Rushdie affair then and the War on Terror today. Where once we struggled to get the state to act on issues such as forced marriage, today, the state uses these same issues to criminalise migrants and justify inhumane immigration controls. Race, class, and sexual identity are still the faultlines that scar feminism. But feminism needs to guard against atomisation – which is what neoliberalism thrives on.