In the New College of the Humanities’ Anchor Magazine, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb argues that we still vehemently need feminism.
First published 31 December 2014.
Women can reach the top: girls outperform boys at A level; female applicants to university far outnumber males. We have had a female prime minister, a female foreign secretary, female home secretaries, and a female Supreme Court judge. We have legislation to enforce equal pay, and increasingly humane provision for women – and men – taking time off work to raise a family. So, do we still need feminism? And if we do, why are young women and men today so hesitant to be identified as feminists?
The ambivalence about the term comes, I think, from a sense that ‘feminism’ conjures up a monolithic patriarchy imposed by men on women, which seems palpably implausible; that it posits an antagonism between the sexes, setting women against men (and we all love men); and that the work of the feminists has been done: all has been achieved and feminism is therefore neither urgent nor relevant. And, yet, I would venture, despite all our advances, that it remains resolutely both.
There seem to me to be three areas, each progressively more serious, which demonstrate this ongoing urgency.
The first is the steadily increasing emphasis on female appearance in such a way that women feel compelled to conform to an unachievable ideal of beauty. This is in part the result of the pornification of mainstream culture, which has not only made the ideal of childish hairlessness and disproportionately-sized breast-waist-hip ratios the goal, but has led to a dramatic soar in the number of repeated, unnecessary cosmetic surgical procedures (that’s tautologous, of course; by definition all cosmetic surgery, except that after an accident, is unnecessary), including vaginoplasty (the reshaping of female genitalia to produce a more toned and tight vagina). It is also, though, a commercially driven and oppressive veneration of the artificial: hair, nails, skin colour, signs of age – the culturally-specific beauty has straightened and dyed one, painted or tinted another, and sought to eradicate the latter. Hear me: there is nothing wrong with physical self-esteem, with taking pride in one’s body, with ‘making the most of one’s appearance’, with wearing beautiful clothes – and doing that alongside other achievements of mind and body. But the constant promotion of perfect, young female bodies (and disgust at ageing, imperfect, unaltered bodies) is pernicious, as is the media adulation of women who have achieved little beyond looking good, be they Jordan or Kate Middleton. Like most forms of patriarchy in history, however, this isn’t something simply imposed on women by men or The Man: women have inculcated this species of narcissism and collude in it too. At least the corset could be removed.
The second area relates to employment and public power. There may have been an Equal Pay Act since 1970 but, the Office of National Statistics records that, in 2011, figures for UK average median earnings indicated a 9.6% gender pay gap for full-time workers (the figure is much higher – 14.9% – if one uses the average mean earnings, which are disproportionately affected by a small number of very high-earning men). In 2011-12, there were 28,800 equal pay claims made at Employment Tribunal, with a success rate of a mere 1%. Women are, simply, not being paid equally to men for equal work. Until legislation forces employers to introduce transparency about pay scales, this will continue.
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that two-thirds of lower paid workers are women, that unemployment figures for women have risen more than 60x faster those for men in the last four years (in March 2012, the ONS found the unemployment rate among women stood at 1.13m, up 20% since 2009, whilst male unemployment rose 0.32% in the same period), and that cuts to public sector funding disproportionately affected women. In 19 councils across England and Wales, women accounted for 100% of those losing their jobs.
Finally, there is the matter of harassment and sexual violence. If you don’t believe that such things are part of many women’s daily experience in this country, spend ten minutes at www.everydaysexism.com. In the UK, one woman in four will be the victim of domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner. In the light of the government’s austerity drive, cuts to funding for local authorities and independent organizations providing help to women seeking refuge from a violent partner have been dramatic: a third of local authority funding for domestic violence organizations was cut between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
The latest figures suggest that approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. Female genital mutilation (FGM or ‘genital cutting’) and honour killings appear to be on the rise, although it is hard to access reliable information on how widely both are practiced in the UK. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that 140 million girls and women across the globe are living with the consequences of FGM. Domestic violence, rape, FGM and honour killings are all about male control, though often women are complicit in their implementation. In the latter cases, we are easily accused of western feminist imperialism and, yet, let’s not be talked out of our liberal humanity by misplaced rhetoric about cultural sensitivity, female choice and empowerment. There are some practices that override the right to assert cultural specificity; there are some values that we should champion above all others. The right to live without mutilation or fear of murder seems to me among them.
We live in an age experiencing what Joan Smith has called a ‘backlash against sexual equality of staggering viciousness’. To be a feminist is, quite simply, to subscribe to the idea that women and men should be equal in economic, social, political and cultural terms, and that gender inequality and sexism should be eliminated in all its forms. Now is the time for anyone of intellectual conviction to be proud to bear the name.