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We Still Need Feminism

By Natasha Walter

The Guardian
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as feminists, it is hard to find a young woman who would not sign up to the feminist goals that are meant to be so outdated, such as being treated equally at work and being able to share family responsibilities with their husbands.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" women.

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.