“I loathe feminism: the sisterhood, from Germaine Greer to Harriet Harman, have a lot to answer for in my view. They carry much responsibility for hindering women from achieving their full potential; theirs are the shrieking siren voices telling women and girls they cannot succeed, as somebody – men, or “the system” – will stop them. That’s a load of rubbish. We women are not victims, as I keep telling university students. We are not martyrs. We are the majority. The only thing that’s holding you back is your belief in yourself.”
The Telegraph article written by Edwina Currie a week ago should have come with a trigger warning. Addressing the Oxford Union, Currie lambasted feminism in the way only a woman who has reached the peak of her privilege can: by making that oh-so-familiar ‘feminism isn’t needed, because I did alright’ statement. In the article, which can be read in its entirety here (trigger warning!), Currie went on to describe how she battled her way through knock backs and trials, citing her resilience and her self-confidence as the reason she succeeded. In fact, in a glorious act of victim-blaming, she asserted that women themselves are their own worst enemy and the reason for the pay gap and sexism.
Instead of boiling with rage at her lack of solidarity, I started to question my own thought processes. Was gender inequality a thing of the past? Had I blinked and missed someone waving a purple flag to indicate the end of the millennia-long gender war that we’ve all been fighting? Were women free now to go back to the kitchen and make dinner?
Forgive me. I mock.
For me, October has been a month of remembering the reality of the need for women’s activism. I attended and presented at the WomenEd Unconference – a remarkable event. Those who were there saw that it was a celebration of women in education. I have largely ignored the inevitable comments on why we have to have a women’s conference because they spark in me a desire to smack my head against a table. I’ve been hearing those same comments – if we had a men’s conference, there’d be uproar/just a small vocal minority who don’t represent the silent majority – since I became aware of identity politics in my early twenties. If I had a penny for every time I have heard ‘women should stop complaining about equality, it’s all fine now – especially as I haven’t experienced any problems’, I’d buy a really expensive bra and burn it.
I do wonder where this dismissal of the need for feminism and women’s activism comes from. Just seeing the criticisms made of the WomenEd Unconference made me realise that it actually was needed and that we hadn’t come that far in seeing women’s voices as important and valid.
In all walks of life, in the developing world and the western world, women take second place even though they make up half of the world’s population. While we may not be ‘chattel’ in the way we were by legal definition until the 1960s, this doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to inequality. There are now different inequalities to address and it takes a ‘vocal minority’ to do just that. Moreover, the point of feminism lies not in its self-interest, but in its very belief that activism is on behalf of others – whether that support or activism is requested or otherwise. So I’m sorry if you don’t want me to stand up for women. I’m going to do it anyway. Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The biggest and most worrying trend is that the majority of the criticism I have seen of women’s activism has come from other women. In this month of learning to celebrate women’s activism, I watched Suffragette and was horrified to see how late universal suffrage was declared in some countries. I re-learned my love of the word ‘solidarity’ in seeing how the female characters leaned on and supported each other during the worst of their experiences in fighting for the vote. Solidarity is a beautiful word and one that women, in particular, don’t use or practice often enough. There is something quease-inducing when I read comments on Twitter and Facebook on identity politics and watch women seeking approval from men they deem to be powerful – I don’t see reasoned argument. I see sycophants simpering. I recall reading this in a History source at school:
“The real reason why women ought not to have the political franchise is the very simple reason that they are not men, and that according to a well-known dictum, even an act of Parliament can not make them men. Men govern the world, and, so far as it is possible to foresee, they must always govern it.” Mrs Humphrey Ward, The Literary Digest, 1908
I worry because this ‘I don’t get why we need women’s activism’ smacks of a lack of self and world awareness; it smacks of a mistaken belief that women talking about women’s equality is actually about them hating men. Or criticising men. Or blaming men. I’ll say it again. Feminism is not about men. To think so fundamentally misses the point of it. It’s a criticism levelled at women who dare to talk about what it means to be a woman in education or politics or law or in any field dominated by men. And we are well aware of how relative the term difficulty is, to both the past and to societies different from our own.
While it might be fruitless to try and engage with those who believe women are equal now that they have the vote (I mean, what else might be needed?), here I go. In 1970, Foucault outlined the movement away from the enactment of power from a visible and physical phenomenon manifested in the punishment of the human body. He used the example of a regicide being tortured. The effect was to punish the criminal and to discipline society. Post-enlightenment, western Europe moved away from torture – the physical control of bodies – and moved towards a more subtle enactment of power – that of incarceration, the erasing of identity through conformity and uniformity, and the use of the gaze to control.
What does this have to do with women and equality? It’s exactly the same process. Women had to fight oppression that was open, clear and could be pinned to suffrage, equal legal rights in marriage, divorce and childcare, abortion, contraception. Those were obvious forms of oppression. In true Foucauldian style, oppression is not a visible force 99% of the time. It is the structures of power, in the representation of women in the media, in the subconscious message. The best introduction to this ‘disciplining’ of women comes in the brilliant documentary, Miss Representation. In the first five minutes, the narrator shows you the barrage of images that women are subjects of and subjected to in a post-feminist age. And we don’t even realise. Because inequality now in the UK isn’t about the vote, or legal rights, or control over our bodies – it is something much more subtle than that. Don’t believe me? Type in ‘female teacher’ into Google and see what comes up. Type in ‘male teacher’ and compare.
I’m in Japan at the moment, visiting schools and learning about the education system here. I like the values, the ethos and the cleanliness of the schools. But I haven’t met a single woman in a position of responsibility yet. I know what I’m grateful for in the UK, but that’s not a reason for me – or other women passionate about celebrating women in education – to ‘pipe down’. It’s just not going to happen.