Still Need Feminism
By Natasha Walter
03 July, 2003
The study published yesterday
by the Future Foundation, which purported to show that feminism is outmoded
and unpopular, predictably produced swathes of coverage. It's hardly
worth spending time discussing the survey itself, since it was based
on a few chats among a few people, but it is worth asking why so many
people seem to be so keen, yet again, to dance on the grave of feminism.
Feminism is pronounced dead
every few years, even though its basic goals have never been achieved.
There is undoubtedly a rather clever backlash going on in Britain right
now. Whenever statistics are published to show that men are still being
paid more than women, or that women are still doing far more domestic
work than men, or that women are still concentrated in lower status
jobs, or that almost all the power brokers of Britain are still men,
the response from so much of the media is not that something must be
done, but that the persistence of such inequality simply proves that
unfairness is the natural condition of our society.
And when the government does
anything at all that might serve to alleviate these inequalities - by
increasing rights to parental leave by a titchy amount, or giving a
few more pounds to childcare initiatives - the response from much of
the media is that these moves are unnecessary and intrusive.
The suggestion is constantly
put out that women must be "free" to choose their own way
of life, even if it is clear that many women whose choices are shaped
by discriminatory workplaces and poor childcare provision do not feel
very free at all. Indeed, even if few people choose to identify themselves
as feminists, it is hard to find a young woman who would not sign up
to the feminist goals that are meant to be so outdated, such as being
treated equally at work and being able to share family responsibilities
with their husbands. But even if the desire for equality remains, it
is still unmet.
Buried in the equal opportunities
commission research, published alongside the dodgy focus group study
that got so much coverage, is the finding that 80% of people surveyed
said they had experienced discrimination at some point in their lives.
But despite this strong awareness of discrimination, in at least one
way the backlash is winning: people do tend to see their experience
of inequality as a private rather than collective experience, one that
requires private rather than collective solutions.
There will never be any progress
towards a more equal society unless these private experiences are linked
into public pressure for change once more. And that will be tough.
One of the problems is that
feminism has become associated with only one particular section of society,
and the wider urgency that once surrounded the call for equality has
become dissipated. Indeed, although the Future Foundation report was
so flimsy, in certain ways it rang true. Some respondents said that
they believed that more equality at work would help only "high-flying"
It is true that feminism
has benefited ambitious, well-educated working women far more than women
who are in lower-status work or who have moved out of paid work. But
it is not the case that women in different classes or with different
lifestyles cannot find common causes to unite behind. The problem is
that most people now see the troubles they go through in life as evidence
of individual failure or misfortune rather than something that can be
alleviated by any political solution. This is particularly true with
anything that touches on family life, where people have become accustomed
to trying to find solutions all on their own to problems that cannot
always be solved by individual effort.
So whether a woman is struggling
to find affordable childcare that will allow her to continue with her
chosen work, or trying to negotiate the leave that would allow her to
care for her children herself, or is even caring for other people's
children and struggling to earn a living wage from it, she tends to
see the hurdles she faces as barriers that she herself must leapfrog,
or fail in the attempt.
Yet all these problems are
linked, and all require public solutions. They may sound old hat, but
they are still urgently needed: those basic needs of more investment
in, and tax relief for, childcare, alongside stronger rights to longer
parental leave. Despite what the backlash would have us believe, equality
feminism does not threaten any woman's freedom to choose the life that
suits her. On the contrary, it is only when that straightforward agenda
of feminism is met that women will find themselves freed up to follow
their own dreams and desires.