“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” So wrote the Irish novelist Rebecca West nearly 100 years ago. The confusion is much less today, with feminism as an accepted label for many women in the arts, media or politics. The highly successful lesbian novelist Sarah Waters asks “Surely the real question should be not “Why are you feminist?” but “Why aren’t you one?”
I run a small business which enables me to be financially independent enough to work towards my ultimate end goal: to solely earn a living from my creative work, be it painting, photography, whatever. I see my sex as an interesting hurdle that shouldn’t be there as a hurdle in the first place. However, it is. I would openly admit to rather being born male. However, I was not. Luckily I am fortunate enough to be in a position where success is a possibility, and sex does not govern the opportunities granted to me. There are, of course, other women making it on their own; the ladettes, out for a good night on the same terms as men. There are the career women, who have proven that they are as good as, if not better than, men, and who have overcome barriers to get to the top. There are the supermodels, who project an impossible picture of untouchable frail female beauty. Then there are the women who reject marriage, monogamy and mother-hood, at least until they hear their biological clock ticking.
These women are all making it in a man’s world. The ubiquitous assumption is – in an era sometimes described as “post-feminist” – that the inequality women once faced has now been overcome. If millions of women don’t match up to the image, then they have to “catch up”. The libertarianism philosophy is one of self-help – change or suffer the consequences. But by definition most of us cannot be winners, and operate with one hand tied behind us. In particular, women’s oppression is not a thing of the past, and the inequality is still very much with us. We live in the distorted reality of a stalled revolution, the reflection of real changes in women’s lives that opened up the promise of true liberation, but have not delivered on that promise.
While some women have hit the jackpot since the 1980s onwards, most have struggled to tread water or have even gone under. Single mothers are amongst those being hit the hardest in the UK by the Conservative-led Government’s cuts. A government which is still by far a male preserve for the “top jobs” and who is run by a man that thinks little of patronisingly telling a female opposition MP to “calm down, dear” during a commons exchange. When such a small percentage, 146 female to 502 male MP’s, of women have so little say in the policies which shape our lives, bearing in mind 50% of the population is female, we must think of what the effects are of being so underrepresented really are.
Structurally, society is built with millions of women at the bottom of the pile. In Britain, even full time workers will earn £4 for every £5 earned by a man. Part timers have wages, which on average, are only two thirds of those of men, making “Women’s work” and low paid work often synonymous.
Sexual discrimination at work is only one part of women’s continued inequality. The widespread use of sexual images help create an atmosphere where women’s sexuality is seen as something to be bought and sold, and this has had new and dire consequences on the attitudes women share towards sex themselves. When the pioneering gynecologist Helena Wright asked her patients in the 1930s what they got out of sex, they blinked uncomprehendingly. Since then, times have changed. Cherie Blair, the former Prime Minister’s wife, openly declared that she and Tony regularly enjoy sex five times a night. It is perceived today that anyone not joining in the sexual revolution – as decreed by the media and sex industries – is seen as hopelessly old fashioned and prudish. Young women would rather risk an STI or repeat abortion than to be declared as unwilling and therefore “not worthy” of a man’s time. These new attitudes of women, along with the resurgence in “Lad” culture, are only worsening the situation as young men grow up believing sex to be a social obligation, influenced by the ever-increasing accessibility of free online pornography. The more sex is void of personal attachment, the better, it seems.
The right of sexual freedom has become the right for women’s bodies to be sold in every lap-dancing bar and on every magazine cover. Nevertheless, we can’t simply address this by just by changing the individual behavior of men. We have to change the society that spends billions on weapons and war, which allows growing gaps in the rich and poor, while still expecting childcare on the cheap, and which expects women to work for less than men.
Women’s lives are hard: that’s true on a global scale. Women routinely and in their hundreds of thousands leave their own children to travel across the world to look after other people’s children. Those who stay in countries like the Philippines find themselves working in sweatshop conditions, subject to long hours, poor wages and sexual harassment. For many women in the Southern Hemisphere, highly exploitative work is the only alternative to emigration or prostitution. Work on the land falls disproportionately on women, who do the vast majority of unpaid work in the world. In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a song for their album ‘Some Time in New York City’ called “Woman is the Nigger of the World”. The single led to some controversy – ironically, mostly among those white and male. Lennon, in an interview about the single, admitted to initially defensively arguing against Yoko – she had come up with the phrase – before he altered his own attitudes towards women, quoting James Connolly, the Irish socialist rebel, by referring to women as the “slaves of the slaves”. Lennon went on to get support from Ron Dellums, the Co-founder and chairman of The Congressional black Caucus, currently Mayor of Oakland, who wrote the following in relation to the Lennon’s use of the word “nigger”:
“If you define ‘niggers’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then Good News! You don’t have to be black to be a ‘nigger’ in this society. Most of the people in America are ‘niggers’.
I cannot help but agree with the song’s sentiments. A capitalist society depends upon profiting from the labour of those at the bottom of the pyramid for the benefit of those at the top. When capitalism developed from the heart of the feudal society, it did so as an economic system based on the free market and the free exchange of labour. Nevertheless, this economic revolution was accompanied by new ideas, which stressed the freedom of the individual, freedom of religion and freedom of thought in general. It was during these revolutions that ideas about what could loosely be called women’s freedom and equality came to the fore. On a more practical level, however, the consequences of a totally equal platform for women means the fundamental break down of basic capitalist structure. The reality of capitalism means liberation and equality of class, sex and race cannot and will never be achieved as long as profit remains the soul focus. Equal playing fields are simply not profitable.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels began their lifelong collaboration in the 1840s, and wrote about women from the very beginning. In one of Marx’s earliest works, ‘The Holy Family’, he paraphrases from Charles Fourier this statement about women:
The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of women to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.”
Engels also wrote, “The employment of the wife dissolves the family utterly and of necessity”. Today the family is still a central institution of capitalist society. However it has been changing, along with women’s positions within it, for the past few decades. As a result, the family is suffering. In the UK, by the spring of 2005, nearly a quarter of children lived in a family headed by a lone parent, compared to just 7 percent as recently as 1972. In 2005 more than four out of every ten births occurred out of marriage, more than four times the proportion of 1974.
The reality of these changes is not only transforming the ‘traditional’ family, but also, the relationship between men and women. Some believe as greater equality is reached between the sexes, that this will, in turn, disadvantage men. This could perhaps account for the level of frustrating defensiveness I am often confronted with in conversation when examining the level of sexism and inequality that still goes on today. I am lucky to be in a relationship where I can say that my boyfriend is, perhaps, more of a feminist than I am. It is due to his capability in understanding, sympathising and verbalising these issues, based on his knowledge of the principles of socialism and equal rights that I am able to understand women’s issues of equality from a male perspective. This helps me to understand the possible threat to a sex’s opportunities when the other sex rises to compete with those same roles. Such a bold change of societies structure does not come without it’s problems, but do the benefits out-way those problems? Yes, certainly.
We are living in the era of the ‘token woman’. In a time of almost militant political correctness, we have got used to acknowledging the one woman placed on the panel of a television show. It’s a competitive field, and those that manage to make it as female comedians are very often over-weight, old, Jewish (as Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition) or conventionally unattractive. Perhaps it is precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence, it could simply be that men do not want women to be funny, let alone funny and attractive. They want women as an audience, not as rivals. Female-dominated panel shows, such as “Loose Women”, typically involve the discussion of trivial and banal topics, whilst the important issues, (economics, politics, world news) are discussed by predominantly male panels. The message is more than obvious: That the inclusion of the token woman is nothing more than a cynical attempt to appear “modern”. When it comes down to the hard stuff, the gender balance is still predominately male.
Paradoxically, the triumph of the rhetoric of equality has taken place exactly at a time when the actual global conditions of women’s lives have worsened, and this rhetoric has been used to justify policies which will inevitably harm women. Although war has proven a catalyst to women’s liberation, in the name of equality, war is justified on the grounds of its benefit to women. So too are policies designed to cut welfare and force women out to work, or plans to make men pay more for their childcare. In some cases, equality has been turned on its head and used to fight its own cause.
If feminism has hit a dead end, it is a reflection of its theoretical and practical inadequacies, rather than there being nothing left to fight for. Instead, ideas of women’s equality are going to have to link up with wider struggles if they are to be successful. Amendments need to be made if we want to see an end to the exploitation which ensures that the needs of women are subjugated to the needs of the capital. Nevertheless, the progress to equality is not automatic. The key to change is connecting many campaigns in which women and men are engaged to that alternative vision, that of equal opportunities, bringing women closer to their liberation. It will mean women can become the subjects of history, rather than its spectators, in changing the world for the better. The revolution has not yet been extinguished, but remains dormant, waiting for its re-ignition.