Debating 21st century feminism

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.

20 Comments

  1. Phil said,

    March 7, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    the speaker who pointed out that how the viewer feels looking at Islamic dress is neither here nor there.

    Nor it is, but Surah 24:31 suggests there’s a bit more to it than that – & that it’s part of Islam’s contribution to the eternal question of which bits of a woman’s body should be visible. This is a question on which many different religions & indeed cultures have very strong opinions, but it’s one which I thought feminism had actually resolved some time ago (A: None of your business, pal). As a liberal (hi Splinty!) I don’t believe women can be told not to submit to the repressive dictates of a patriarchal religion – any more than they can be told not to submit to the exhibitionist dictates of a patriarchal consumer culture – but I would have expected feminists to have a view.

    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!

    Eh? I was a child in a church-going CofE family forty years ago, and there were no “religious dress codes” that I can remember. My mother told me that she could remember when it was expected that women should wear a hat in church, but that was
    (a) some time ago
    (b) more to do with the sumptuary codes of middle-class respectability than women’s dress as such
    and
    (c) clearly not something which anyone on the Left would particularly want to get behind.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      March 7, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      Yes, but that’s the C of E. Try going into an Orthodox church and see if you can see a woman of any age not wearing a headscarf and a floor-length skirt. I know female members of the Greek Communist Party who wouldn’t dream of going into a church with their heads uncovered. And actually it’s still not unheard of in Ireland for women to go into church with their heads covered. It is though something that you find more with older women, except in some very conservative Protestant denominations.

      Having said that, should feminists or the left have a view on how, say, Presbyterians or Baptists operate? No reason why not, but whether declaiming on these things from the outside is sensible is another matter.

      • Phil said,

        March 8, 2010 at 8:14 am

        There’s a difference between not having a view on what members of group X do & endorsing it in the name of the freedom of choice of members of group X. And has to be, surely, or else feminists would never have passed comment on anyone except other feminists.

      • March 8, 2010 at 11:55 am

        at least as far as I know, Greek-Orthodox churches in Germany are pretty relaxed about it, there is no specific dress code

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        March 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm

        Yes, but I didn’t particularly mean expressing an opinion. There’s a tactical question about how you express an opinion. We know there’s a range of opinions about hijab amongst Muslim women, but non-Muslim feminists making stentorian declamations of the “get the scarves off those oppressed women’s heads” variety is not always productive.

  2. De Northside Socialist said,

    March 7, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    “Eh? I was a child in a church-going CofE family forty years ago, and there were no “religious dress codes” that I can remember.”

    I grew up in the1970’s in a working-class area of Dublin and can vividly remember women (admittedly of a certain age) wearing head scarves in church. In those days, Catholic nuns still wore traditional habits. My aunt is a nun, but has worn civvies for many years.

    http://www.fisheaters.com/theveil.html

    Still today girls of 7/8 wear communion dresses and veils for Holy Communion (although the current fashion is also for fake tan/nails, stretch limos and lavish celebrations a recent phenomenon brought about by Celtic Tiger years).

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/pricewatch/2009/0518/1224246808135.html

    I would agree with the statement mentioned above in relation to what any woman wears “A: None of your business, pal”.

  3. March 7, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    […] Splintered Sunrise; debating feminism in the 21st century. […]

  4. Wednesday said,

    March 8, 2010 at 7:36 am

    The girls’ uniform in some national schools in Ireland still involves ankle-length skirts. I’ve noticed this in Limerick, not sure if it’s the case anywhere else.

  5. David said,

    March 8, 2010 at 10:25 am

    The idea that people should dress “modestly” and that for women this means covering their heads seems to be one of the many common points between both traditional Christianity and Islam.

    A 1917 Code of Canon Law required Catholic women to have veiled themselves before entering a church. A change in 1983 is widely seen as changing this, although this Catholic website things otherwise: http://www.fisheaters.com/theveil.html

    See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_headcovering

    In her book ‘Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy’ socialist-feminist Barbara Ehrenreich suggested that covering women’s hair was part of the “the early church’s systematic attempts to remove the Dionysian elements from their services – dancing, singing, speaking in tongues, the tossing of freely flowing hair.” (the quote’s the Guardian review, not directly from Ehrenreich).

    Rest of the review here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/apr/07/society2

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      March 8, 2010 at 5:35 pm

      It’s also the case IIRC that Muslim traditions of modest dress derived from pre-existing Middle Eastern traditions. Veiling used to be quite common in local Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities if you’re willing to go back a ways. Although if you look at old artwork from Iran, you’ll notice that male dress codes, which used to be very restrictive, have liberalised in a way that female codes haven’t. Which itself tells a tale.

  6. johng said,

    March 8, 2010 at 10:35 am

    headscarfs became a debate about ‘choice’ when a state discussed banning them and when, in other states, the debate became one about the need for minorities to ‘integrate’. I would have thought this was by now obvious. If the state banned marriage we would probably have to campaign to defend the right to get married. Of course we would still have a critique of the institution of marriage, in the same way that defending the rights of religous minorities does not involve being religious.

    • Phil said,

      March 8, 2010 at 9:42 pm

      But whether people should be free to choose to do something & whether they should do it are two different questions. I wouldn’t ban anyone from doing unpaid overtime, and I can imagine situations where I’d actually defend people’s right to do it. But I can still say that it’s wrong for people to be expected to do unpaid overtime, or to accept unpaid overtime as normal.

  7. johng said,

    March 8, 2010 at 10:36 am

    One concrete example on marriage was Aparthied making family life impossible for migrant workers.

  8. neprimerimye said,

    March 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Although it has never made a fetish of the term the IS tradition from which Lindsey comes, has very rarely described itself as feminist. That she now embraces the term, which many old school ISers strongly rejected, is very interesting. Especially in light of her early experience of the closure of Womens Voice as a young SWP fulltimer…

  9. Binh said,

    March 8, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I created my YouTube channel to combat sexism, especially that embodied by self-styled “men’s rights” activists:

    http://www.youtube.com/binhthanhvo

    They are based in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada, and they are exploiting problems men have in their personal relationships to push a sexist, anti-feminist, anti-woman agenda. (I like to call them Misogynist Rights Activists since they refer to themselves as MRAs/MRMs.)

    In standing up these clowns, I’ve re-read older SWP stuff written by Chris Harman and “Sex, Class, and Socialism” by Lindsey German. Both equate feminism with separatist/radical feminism, and I think that is a mistake. However, in the context of the 70s and 80s when there was a huge, divisive debate within the SWP and on the left in general over the question of separate women’s organizations, I can understand why there was a “hardline” on feminism.

    However, in today’s context, there is no feminist movement to speak of, and there hasn’t been an active one in 2-3 decades. As a result, sexism has made a huge comeback, among women and men. To declare yourself “against feminism” or to say that you’re not a feminist today is to side with the corporate media and sexists who love to say that “feminism is dead.” Furthermore, it cuts you off from the new generation of feminists, many of whom have strong working class politics, unlike the feminist movement of the 70s.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      March 8, 2010 at 8:05 pm

      I can understand why maybe 25 years ago there would have been a need to take a tough line with the rad-fems, but yes, I think the tendency did box itself into a corner. So if we’re in a situation where there is really very little of an active feminist movement, but feminist concerns are still relevant… Yes, that raises questions about how these concerns are going to rise again. And the need to have a dialogue with new activists coming along.

  10. Charlie said,

    March 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I always hesitate to get into the ‘equal pay’ argument with non-women’s libbers, after having done some research into the topic (for an ongoing argument) a few years back and finding, to my embarrassment, absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that women were getting paid different hourly rates in the same jobs (in the UK). What’s posited as a ‘pay gap’ is actually a ‘career gap’, to all extents and purposes; as has been mentioned, women (on average) are more likely to work part-time, or in low-skilled jobs which act to provide a supplementary income to that of their partner. Statistically that still makes it possible to argue that ‘women are paid less than men’, but not in any way which would ring as intuitively ‘true’ to anyone with any of the data. Not, at least, whilst we still have a culture which deems it acceptable that there be differentiation in pay between *any* different jobs.

    It’s obviously of paramount importance to tackle the roots of gender ‘pigeon-holing’ of different job types and social roles. But, I think the gender pay issue (often based, as it is, on wage statistics) is unlikely to capture the imaginations of a new generation of women for whom actual *pay discrimination* between themselves and their male colleagues in their workplace is not a reality.

    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=167

    • Binh said,

      March 9, 2010 at 4:18 pm

      Charlie, check out this article on the pay gap in E. Germany vs. W. Germany:

      http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4834012,00.html

      The pay gap in E. Germany is around 3%, while in W. Germany it’s 24 percent. Why the difference? Well, in E. Germany, the Stalinists built tons of day care centers all over the place to make sure women could go to work AND have family instead of being forced to choose. 90% of women there work outside the home!

      My point here is that while you are correct that the pay gap (or career gap as you put it) is more complicated than sexist managers paying women less, it is still a very real issue that women have to grapple with.

      This shows how the fight for real socioeconomic equality for women leads to broader questions about reproduction within the nuclear family, child care as a commodity, equal pay, abortion rights, etc.

  11. PamDirac said,

    March 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    “The idea that people should dress “modestly” and that for women this means covering their heads seems to be one of the many common points between both traditional Christianity and Islam.”

    There was a lively discussion of this from a Christian perspective over at Father Z’s invaluable site not too long ago. The covering of a woman’s head in church is her symbolic acknowledgement of male authority (this was from defenders of the practice). I assume the hijab has similar symbolic associations. If Muslim women want to wear it they want to wear it, but I don’t see why feminists should not take a negative view and express that view. Presumably no one would defend the wearing of the more constrictive clothing forced on women in some Muslim countries.

  12. Binh said,

    March 13, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Lindsey German’s speech at the book shop.


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