Over in the imperial metropolis, there was what sounds like quite an interesting meeting yesterday on the theme of “Feminism Today”. This report by Jane Kelly is taken from Socialist Resistance.
The meeting on ‘Feminism Today’ with Nina Power and Lindsey German at Housmans’ bookshop (Saturday, March 6, to celebrate International Women’s Day) attracted a hundred strong audience of women, especially young women and a few men. It was a stimulating and lively meeting, with a sense of dynamism and energy I have not experienced in a women’s meeting since the days of Women for Socialism – an offshoot of the Socialist Movement – in the late 1980s. This meeting reinforces the observation that many women are becoming angry about their situation, especially in the face of a prolonged period of austerity.
Both speakers have had books published – German’s Material Girls: Women, Men and Work in 2007 and Power’s One Dimensional Woman in 2009 – and their thought-provoking introductions gave a taste of the contents, in particular the relationship between oppression, gender and class. Unfortunately there was not enough time to develop discussion of the role of the family in capitalist society. Nina Power made an interesting critique of what used to be called ‘cultural’ feminism, or lifestyle feminism, arguing that unless you analyse the position of women at work and what she calls the ‘feminisation’ of labour, you cannot start to understand the position of women in today’s society.
Lindsey German pointed out that, despite some pessimism at the state of the contemporary women’s movement and its interests – a tendency to individual solutions, self-empowerment, alongside a capitalist labour market which emphasised female eagerness to please, ‘perky-ness’ and a general commodification of sex, including among young girls – there have in fact been huge changes in the lives of women (in Britain) since the 1960s. Many of these changes are a direct result of the activities and battles by the women’s liberation movement (WLM) of the 1970s and 1980s. But, and it is a big but, many of the expectations raised by the second wave of the WLM have not been met. The most obvious is the question of equal pay, with women still earning only around 80% of the male wage, and for the millions of part-time women workers the situation is even worse.
The introductions were followed by a wide-ranging and interesting discussion from the floor. It was noticeable that speakers for the most part had a socialist feminist framework, including the many young women present. This was especially inspiring to those socialist feminists like myself who have been active since the 1970s. The political level of discussion was high too, including on the other main debate that was about the hijab and the right of Muslim women to wear it. There was more or less a consensus on this among the women who spoke, though there were a couple of men who suggested that supporting this right to choose was a derogation of socialism. But this was a minority view and there were some witty and sharp responses to it such as the speaker who pointed out that how the viewer feels looking at Islamic dress is neither here nor there. Others pointed out that Christian religious dress codes, such as the demand that women wear a scarf in a church, a requirement until quite recently, were rarely objected to, including by men!
In my contribution I pointed out that this was also the 40th anniversary of the first Women’s Liberation conference, held at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1970. Just as Lindsey pointed out, many of our objectives have not been met.
The demands of that conference were as follows:
- Equal Pay
- Equal education and job opportunities
- Free contraception and abortion on demand
- 24 hour free nurseries.
On equal pay women earn around 82% of male wage in full time work, but it is much worse if you compare hourly rates of women in part time work and men in full time work – a 40% gap. And large numbers of women work part-time because of child care commitments. Furthermore women concentrated in a segregated labour market in 10 or so service and caring occupations despite increased educational attainment at all levels. And childcare, an essential component of giving women choices about when, how and what to work at is very expensive and mostly in private hands etc. ‘Free nurseries’ is still a demand we need to fight for.
Some figures from the early 1990s show how women have been used as a reserve army of labour to push down wages generally and to push all workers – men and women – into temporary, part-time and poorly paid work. This is Power’s ‘feminisation’ of the workforce.
By the middle of the 1990s the composition of the labour force had changed. According to Labour Market Trends, March 1997, over 70 per cent of women between the ages of sixteen and fifty-nine were economically active at the start of 1996. Forty-four per cent were working part time, compared to 8 per cent of men. Of the 5.8 million people working part time, 82 per cent were women. However the 8 per cent of men working part time had doubled between 1986 and 1996, whereas the percentage of women working part time had only increased by one per cent. The figures for temporary work are even more striking: the number of women in temporary jobs increased by 23 per cent, while for men the figure was 74 per cent.
Lindsey German had produced a draft Manifesto for 21st Century Feminism that was distributed at the meeting. Many people signed up for a proposed meeting to discuss it – date to be announced – and I look forward to more discussion on the issues facing women in the next period of capitalist crisis, and the activities and campaigns that will be necessary.