All together now

The feminist fightback against cuts needs to come from the grassroots, says Siobhan McGuirk

July 25, 2010
4 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

Mainstream analyses of the budget announcements have noted, to varying degrees, the disproportionate blows Osborne’s axe has inflicted on women. The coverage is welcome. Yet the newly-in-opposition politicians making the issue front-page news, such as shadow work and pensions minister Yvette Cooper, appear to have forgotten their own previous stances in government. Real opposition comes from the bottom up.

For Cooper and co, it’s politics as usual, but there is a lot more at stake here than point scoring. These are not temporary measures. We cannot afford to overlook the ideology behind the cuts, as particular behaviours are rewarded when others are punished.

As Tim Hunt shows (see page 28), the UK’s two million single parents, 92 per cent of them women, will suffer terribly as a result of the cuts. And we don’t need to read between the lines for the message; David Cameron has been quite open about it. Last December he declared: ‘Commitment and relationships and marriage are good institutions. We shouldn’t be completely neutral about them as a society. I think the tax and benefits systems … need to think about what other long-term signals that we are sending out as a society.’ The implications of this budget go deeper than our wallets.

Social attitudes towards gender equality have evolved over recent decades. The mere acknowledgement that welfare and public service cuts will differentially and disproportionately affect women would not have made headlines 20 years ago. Then, unemployment was still largely a male issue. As the rhetoric of ‘necessary pain’ beds in, however, this progress faces reversal. The space for addressing pervasive inequalities that has been opened must be quickly seized.

Call to arms

In the last issue of Red Pepper (Jun/Jul 2010), Catherine Redfern and Laurie Penny debated contemporary currents in feminism. Penny concluded that, without groups coming together with shared goals of social justice for all and taking real action to achieve them, the number of women self-defining as feminists is largely irrelevant. The groups featured over the previous pages answer Penny’s call to arms.

At the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Hackney, space and resources are shared by groups including WinVisible and Single Mothers Self Defence, alongside the English Collective of Prostitutes, All African Women’s Group and Wages Due Lesbians, among others. In their activism, each notes degrees of social exclusion and political marginalisation including but not limited to gender, sexuality, class, race, nationality and disability. Here, equality is inclusive and no one should be oppressed. If the marginalised are to be empowered, take action and force change, we must recognise that we are in this together.

These groups are raising awareness through lobbying, petitioning, protesting and writing to local and national press. They are forming solidarity-led networks to share information and stand in allegiance. Their focus is on supporting those who need it.

Austerity measures announcements have been met by women-led campaigns elsewhere. On 8 March this year, the Greek Communist Party-affiliated union PAME held a peaceful protest coinciding with International Women’s Day, symbolically emphasising the gender-biased impact of cuts to civil servants’ salaries, pension freezes and increased general sales tax. In May, women public service workers rallied outside the Italian parliament in Rome, protesting against similar budget decisions. Just as European governments find justification for their actions in mirroring other states’ language and policy, campaign groups are being handed opportunities to form international bonds.

Inspiration can be drawn from the past as well as abroad. While comment and comparison with Thatcher era cuts have littered budget analyses, attention should also be turned to those who fought her policies on the streets, picket lines and through non-payment campaigns.

In histories of anti-poll tax campaigns, there is a sad yet predictable paucity of women’s voices, despite their undoubted presence. Unions and political parties were marked then by a disproportionate presence of male voices, a tendency that continues to this day. But where women are still unable to be heard institutionally, grass-roots organisations will emerge.

Theoretical disagreements occasionally blunted explicitly feminist movements during the 1980s, and these movements often overshadowed women-led movements reacting to more broadly felt social injustices. Women Against Pit Closures, for instance, creditable as the glue that held the miners’ strike together, deserves more attention. This grassroots, working-class movement put feminism into practice, empowering women to step into a male-dominated world and assert the importance of their opinions and roles in the community.

This time round, the marginalised voices speaking out against the cuts demand to be listened to, now.

These articles are part of our series on emerging political movements, made possible with the help of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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