Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Feminism: now for the good news

Women's oppression remains a major feature of British society, even if it sometimes looks rather different than it did during that last big wave of feminism in the 1970s. But the good news, argues Catherine Redfern, is that feminism is alive and kicking too

June 16, 2010
15 min read

You’d be forgiven for thinking that feminism today is in a terrible state. We all know the score by now, surely: rape conviction rates are at record lows; girls’ and boys’ career choices are still split along gender lines; women are being paid less than men; there’s concern about the ‘sexualisation’ of girls; politicians are threatening to roll back the clock on abortion rights; climate change is threatening women – the poorest of the poor – worldwide. And that’s just picking a few things off the top of my head.

In the face of all this, what have women been doing about it? Nothing apparently, according to the mainstream narrative of feminism over the past few years. Shrugging our shoulders, insisting we’re empowered and painting our nails while Rome burns.

Young women particularly have borne the brunt of this criticism, routinely told they’re apathetic or anti-feminist. At a recent feminist conference in Australia, 23-year-old organiser Rosa Campbell complained to a reporter: ‘We’re told all the time we have raunchy pornographic sex, binge-drink, pole-dance and are not active feminists. We’ve taken all the choices the seventies feminists won and used them for our own oppression. We’re ungrateful and rude.’

This has been the dominant narrative in the UK too. Feminism ‘has sunk into mindless hedonism’ according to one recent Telegraph article, laced with disapproving overtones about young women’s depravity, and illustrated with the mandatory photo of a group of young women partying in the street. Curiously, young women’s apparent rejection of feminism is presented as proof of their superficiality, while at the same time real feminists are dismissed and ridiculed.

The truth is rather different.

Beyond the doom and gloom

In my new book with Kristin Aune, Reclaiming the F Word, we’re presenting the good news: that feminism is being reclaimed in ever greater numbers. We’re not just arguing that more of us should embrace feminism afresh; we’re arguing that this is already happening, with younger activists fully involved. And we can prove it.

We’ve witnessed this during our own experience of feminist activism over the past ten years, Kristin as a sociology lecturer and active member of various feminist groups, and myself as founder and editor of The F Word (www.thefword.org.uk) a volunteer-run, UK-based feminist website. Throughout our twenties we witnessed our peers increasingly organise new events, groups, actions, protests, festivals and conferences. Sometimes these were reinventions of ‘second wave’ feminist forms, such as Reclaim the Night marches or national conferences. Sometimes they took new forms, such as feminist blogs, websites, Twitter campaigns, Ladyfest festivals or ‘unconferences’. Today the growth shows no signs of stopping, with new feminist groups being formed all over the country and new members flocking to join long-established groups such as the Fawcett Society.

As we investigated the extent to which women today support feminism, we were further encouraged. When asked about key feminist principles, the vast majority of women and men will support them. But even the numbers of those who identify as feminists are heartening too. Various surveys tend to show that between 25-30 per cent of women will call themselves feminists. While this is frequently reported as a failure of feminism (‘only 25 per cent of women’), we feel this is actually positive. The act of labelling oneself with a political identity is something that people are normally rather reluctant to do. Furthermore, taking on the identity of ‘feminist’ (or similar identities such as ‘womanist’) suggests some sort of commitment to activism, even at a very basic level. Wouldn’t any activist movement want a quarter of their community signed up to it?

Finally, we undertook our own survey, of almost 1,300 UK feminists who are involved with these new groups, organisations and events. The results supported what we had already observed: three quarters of those who responded were under 35; about 62 per cent were in their twenties or under. We had responses from more than 50 different groups, from national issue-specific campaigns, local groups and web-based groups as well as individuals.

This doesn’t mean that older women are not involved in these groups too. But it is clear that we can put to bed the myth that young feminists aren’t involved in feminism.

Reclaiming feminism from what – and why?

So why, you might ask, should feminism need to be reclaimed in the first place? Reclaimed from what? The answer is, partly, from the kind of simplistic, negative discussions around feminism that we’ve seen over the past few years.

In the UK, the mainstream media has been slow to recognise contemporary feminist activism, with many protests, events, groups and activities routinely going unreported. It’s only recently, perhaps due in part to several feminist books published this year (including Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion and Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls), as well as the tireless efforts of activists, that some quarters of the media have finally picked up on feminism as newsworthy. Even the Telegraph somewhat grudgingly accepted that feminism is showing ‘signs of life’ (while still managing to use the words ‘dead’ and ‘corpse’ to describe it).

We can look at feminism’s representation in the mainstream media to shed light on how attempts have been made to appropriate or co-opt it into something less threatening to the status quo. Women’s magazines, for example, tend to present feminism as generally a good thing, but only if ‘new’ feminists with their ‘high-heels and lashings of mascara’ can be positioned against the supposedly serious, scary, older ones, pandering to those who think that what a woman looks like matters more than what she does. Feminism is re-branded as fluffy and unthreatening, more about claiming an ’empowering’ (some would say meaningless) identity than collective action or concrete changes. Is it any wonder that many people’s view of contemporary feminism is negative?

While the message that feminists come in different shapes and sizes (so to speak) is a good one, it shouldn’t necessarily be the main priority whenever feminism is discussed, at the expense of actual politics.

This curious relationship with feminism – that it’s absorbed but in a watered down form that doesn’t really challenge the status quo – is not unique to feminism, of course. Younger feminists have grown up in an increasingly commercialised world, brilliantly described by Naomi Klein in her classic No Logo. It’s no surprise that feminism’s image has been swallowed up and distorted, when even 1960s political protest songs are being used to sell products.

Nina Power argues in One Dimensional Woman that in this climate, ‘Almost everything turns out to be “feminist” – shopping, pole-dancing, even eating chocolate’ – and feminism is sold as the ‘latest must-have accessory.’ Some blame feminists themselves for this, but the people who tell us eating chocolate is feminist are advertisers, not (in my experience anyway) feminists themselves. In practice, the idea that young women embrace feminism because it somehow gains them street cred is laughable. In our survey, 63 per cent of women reported experiencing negative consequences from identifying as a feminist, ranging from ridicule to homophobic abuse, threats or even attacks. (Interestingly, the male pro-/feminists reported far fewer negative consequences than the female.) Identifying as a feminist today, in the face of extreme hostility, is a brave thing to do. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of fashionable. And at least a quarter of women are prepared to do it. To me, that’s inspiring.

But this representation of contemporary feminism as being about ‘lipstick liberation’ seems commonplace. The average layperson might imagine that contemporary feminists are mainly concerned about such crucially important topics such as ‘Is Katie Price a feminist icon?’ or ‘Can I wear heels/make-up/do x/y/z and be a feminist?’

The negative representation of contemporary feminists has perhaps been influenced by debates in the US over ‘third-wave’ feminism. While I have always considered this term a compliment to older feminists rather than a snub, the idea of ‘a growing conflict between two generations’, as Women’s eNews described it in 2002, seems to have coloured the debate.

It is possible that what seemed like generational conflict was partly a necessary evolution of feminist ideas and practices in a changing context, in particular to try to make feminism accessible and more inclusive. But interviewed for an article in Conducive magazine (‘Drowning in the shallow end: third wave feminism’, July/Aug 2009), Daisy Hernandez, managing editor of the US race and politics newsmagazine Colorlines, argues that ‘much of the discussion of the newness of third wave feminism comes out of an active desire from daughters to separate themselves from the previous generation. “A lot of it is in opposition, a very particular mother-daughter dynamic,” Hernandez said, noting many women of color have a very different attachment to the older generation: “We very much see ourselves as proud daughters.”‘

With this idea of ‘generational in-fighting’ in mind, it is interesting to contrast the attitudes of the UK-based feminists we surveyed. In our survey, in which the ethnicity of respondents broadly reflected the UK population, most felt that the important feminist issues of today were quite similar to those of the 1970s. And while 48 per cent worked with feminists of a range of ages, the 30 per cent who interacted with feminists of the same age generally did so for practical reasons rather than political (many respondents were at university, for example). Perhaps most tellingly, when we asked who inspires them most, respondents’ own mothers and grandmothers were among the most frequently mentioned. On hearing this at a recent conference, a second-wave generation feminist told me: ‘We would have said our mothers inspired us towards feminism too, but not in a good way!’

So this image of contemporary feminists as first superficial and second antagonistic towards older generations does not ring true of the majority of feminists active today that we’ve surveyed, met and know personally. The feminists we know are fierce, intelligent, independent-minded, and reluctant to be pigeon-holed. When we asked the feminists in our survey what issues concerned them, Katie Price’s status as a feminist icon was not, you’ll be interested to know, one of their key concerns. No, they were concerned about big, serious issues: violence against women, economic inequality, childcare, equal pay, political representation, sexism in popular culture, the sex industry, and intersectional issues – racism, transgender issues, class. Concepts like kyriarchy (a modification of patriarchy which includes intersecting structures of domination) are becoming more frequent on the feminist ‘blogosphere’.

The majority of feminists surveyed didn’t identify with any particular ‘type’ of feminism. For those who did, socialist was the most popular choice. Many picked several terms, ranging from radical, womanist, third-wave, anarcha, sex-positive, pro-feminist, to ‘international punk noise feminist’ – although to my disappointment there was only one of those.

Moving forward

It is the simplistic and negative approach to feminism we’ve had over the last few years that contemporary feminists are reclaiming feminism from. An end to the simplistic representations and soundbites; enough with the magazine articles illustrated with burning bras and stories reinforcing stereotypes about feminists. We know those things are distortions of the truth. We also know that the fact that feminism is still being presented in this way proves the point.

Some have assumed that the white, middle class focus of the recent BBC Four Women documentaries is representative of the movement as a whole, failing to recognise the mainstream media’s role as a gatekeeper as to the types of feminism it is willing to represent. (I appreciate the irony that as a co-author of a book, it is people like me that are given the opportunities to speak.) But while there are certainly issues still to be resolved within feminist groups around intersecting oppressions, and improvements to be made in terms of diversity and inclusion, feminism is a lot broader than those who make it onto TV and we shouldn’t assume that feminist work isn’t being done out of the limelight.

What most inspires me are those women working at the grassroots level, whose activism we’ve tried to give a flavour of in our book: the teenagers writing their zines in their bedroom; the volunteers at the rape crisis centre, the women organising for better childcare services, the cleaners striking for a living wage, the anarcha-feminists organising collectively, and the bloggers staying up late into the night, reporting on these actions in their spare time.

Feminism isn’t what we’re told it is by advertisers, magazines, or anyone else in power. Feminism is not about endless tedious debates about whether doing X or Y makes you a feminist. It’s not a club with a list of rules that you are in constant danger of being thrown out of. Each of us comprises a jigsaw piece that adds up to a vibrant, diverse feminist movement that is in constant flux, evolution and change. It can’t be represented by a few organisations, individuals or manifestos. Feminism’s diversity is for me, and for most of those we surveyed, a strength rather than a weakness.

So we need to keep sharing feminist ideas outside of the mainstream media as well as within it, whether through volunteer-run blogs or photocopied zines passed around. We need to highlight feminist activism that doesn’t get mentioned or acknowledged in the mainstream. If feminism is to be reclaimed, it should be for all of us. What do we need to do with a reclaimed feminism? Well, where to begin?

Feminism touches almost every aspect of our lives, from the personal to the public sphere, from a woman’s relationship with her own body, to sex and relationships, violence, education and work, politics and religion, and our culture. The issues that concern feminists today are not totally new issues. In fact some of the ‘old’ issues, like justice for rape victims and the pressure to conform to beauty ideals, to take two examples, have got a lot worse. Some issues are still, sadly, unresolved, like violence against women, women’s representation in politics, equal pay, and the equal distribution of caring responsibilities.

But other issues are coming to the fore in a changing context. Women and religion is becoming an increasingly hot topic, with religious, secular and atheist feminists active in different ways. Religious women see themselves used as political pawns whilst at the same time their voices are marginalised, and many fear a resurgence of religious fundamentalism. The internet has had a major impact on feminist networking and activism, as well as providing a new arena for struggle against misogyny. We live in an increasingly globalised culture, and feminist struggles around the world are something we’re interested in, from global poverty and climate change to the conditions of workers in factories (mostly women) that make clothes exported to the west. Women’s health globally is a huge issue; HIV infection rates, deaths in childbirth and female genital mutilation sadly are all still firmly on the agenda.

The growth and influence of the sex industry has led to an increasingly sexualised culture, with many concerned about the impact of misogynistic and racist pornography on teenagers and children. We also have to deal with sex trafficking while trying to find ways to protect and help those in the sex industry. And in an increasingly commercialised world, where we’re encouraged to believe that liberation can be bought and advertisements bombard our senses daily, we need to challenge the influence of commercial interests in women’s lives (for example, the medicalisation of female sexuality).

So while there is cause to be optimistic about feminism there is still much to do. Feminism questions everything, from the issues we prioritise in politics, to the way we value certain jobs in society (cleaners and teachers, say, compared to footballers and bankers). The very structure of politics is up for debate. Some feminists prefer a move away from a ‘winner takes all’, competitive version of political power to an expectation that equality should be guaranteed. For many feminists, feminism goes hand in hand with an optimistic, radically different vision of how the world could be a better place for everyone. That’s why feminists are so inspiring: they’re ambitious, think big and take action, both individually and collectively.

Often, the problems we’ve identified can’t all be solved by simple legislative changes or increased funding. In many cases we’re looking at nothing less than a massive long-term change in society’s attitudes. So, cultural representations of women and men are an increasingly important battleground, and cultural as well as political activism is a major feature of feminism today. Actions like writing, blogging, subvertising and critiquing cultural products such as song lyrics, films and TV shows are often considered indulgent or a less effective form of activism. But these actions do more than preach to the converted. At The F Word, we’ve received many emails telling us that we’ve helped to change readers’ minds about various issues. Other feminist writers and bloggers report similar reactions. In a world that thinks that there’s no need for feminism, these activists are helping to point out why it’s still necessary and bring more people into the movement.

Feminism is about making changes that improve the lives of women (and many would argue, men too). Let’s keep focused on that, come together on issues that we agree on, and make the most of this enthusiastic groundswell of activists.

Catherine Redfern is co-author, with Kristin Aune, of Reclaiming The F Word: The New Feminist Movement (Zed Books, June 2010) and is founder of www.thefword.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


25