Reclaiming the revolution

It is right to celebrate the re-emergence of feminism, says Laurie Penny, but we need to build a broad movement that has a clear analysis of the economic basis of women's oppression

May 29, 2010
7 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.

Catherine Redfern offers an impressive survey of a feminist movement that is more vibrant and diverse in 2010 than it has been for many years. The internet has driven an exhilarating new interest in real female empowerment, particularly among young women, many of whom grew up, as I did, suspecting that we were the only ones who believed there was more to equality than Spice Girls knapsacks and sexy dancing.

Books such as Redfern and Kristin Aune’s recent Reclaiming The F Word chart the welcome upsurge of feminist rage that has followed the perky corporate passivity of 1990s ‘girl power’. However, while Redfern is right to argue that feminism is large enough to encompass women of all ages and backgrounds and with a broad range of views, today’s revived movement is suffering an identity crisis.

Issues such as the role of prostitutes and the status of trans women within the movement are fragmenting the new wave of feminist activism into small campaigns and factions which, while worthy in themselves, have failed to start moving in the same direction. Finn Mackay of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, a major figure in the new movement, states the sex work shibboleth in broad binary terms, asking, ‘As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job?’

Feminists have never agreed with one another on everything, nor should they be expected to – but today more than ever, what the feminist cause needs is a broad coalition of activists, with a clear direction and long-term goals.

Redfern notes that in recent decades the notion of feminism has been somewhat ‘re-branded’, as ‘fluffy and unthreatening… more about claiming an “empowering” identity than collective action or concrete changes’. It is this focus on the broader structures of gender, politics and economics rather than the niceties of personal and community identity that remains fatally absent from the modern movement.

Feminism is about economics before it is about identity, and only a movement that understands this can effect positive change and defend women’s progress on a national and international level.

Feminism at a crossroads

The truth is that feminism stands at a crossroads. In 2010, women face a choice between completing the social revolution that our foremothers began in the last century or bowing to the demands of the conservative right. While worthy in themselves, groups that campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs do not address the basis of women’s oppression today – the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.

Capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women – as unpaid carers and low-status labourers performing 66 per cent of the world’s work; as consumers, making over 75 per cent of spending decisions while controlling only a small proportion of global wealth; as victims of sexual violence and aggression at individual, local and international levels; and as reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed.

Since feminism demanded that women be freed from the economic obligation to marry, be paid equally for all of their labour, be protected from individual and state abuse and be in control of the means of reproduction, patriarchal resistance to feminist revolution has been riveted into the mechanisms of late capitalism.

The ‘backlash’ that Susan Faludi identified in her 1991 book of the same name is ongoing, and while it may be couched in vengeful moral terms, its basis is wholly economic. Recent years have seen a strikeback from the markets-and-morals brigade on both sides of the Atlantic, cracking down on the most fundamental victories won by second-wave feminists.

Women’s reclamation of the means of reproduction is under particular threat. In 2008, Christian and Conservative lobby groups in Britain attempted to outlaw termination of pregnancy at 20 to 24 weeks, and in the US, state governments compete to think up ever more cruel and unusual ways to punish women for sexual self-determination. Utah recently ratifed a law whereby a woman who behaves ‘recklessly’ while a foetus is gestating inside her can be charged with homicide.

The British Conservative Party has made it clear that it believes traditionally repressive gender roles are best for society. In his recent book The Pinch, the Tory ideologue David Willetts makes a sweeping case for how feminism – by encouraging women to enter the workplace and divorce their husbands – has upset the balance of a society based on private property and small, atomised economic family units.

Feminists have taken all the jobs and destroyed social security, says Willetts, declaring that ‘a welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.’ Willletts advocates a return to marriage, like the rest of his party, which plans to reward married women for staying at home.

The point of feminism

In one respect, Willetts and his ilk are right – the partial emancipation of women really has broken society. That was the point. That was what it was designed to do.

Feminism was not supposed to be about the occasional drive to get prostitutes off the streets combined with as much chocolate, shopping and low-paid public-sector work as we could stomach. Feminism was meant to be about a total overhaul of society’s rules about work, family, sex, money and power.

That’s what ten generations of women marched, sacrificed, protested, eulogised, fought and died for. It wasn’t because they’d heard there was a really excellent shoe sale on. They wanted to break society, and that’s what they set out to do.

Somewhere in the last 25 years, that revolutionary energy was compromised. We forgot that gender equality was never supposed to mean the right to be oppressed on equal terms, and the old feminist demands of equal work at home, equal pay at work, dignity in the streets, reproductive freedom and protection from abuse began to be hedged as early as the 1980s.

Faced with overwhelming resistance, the fight for the emancipation of women of all races and classes was downgraded to a polite request for middle-class, white women to be allowed to enter the workplace – as long as we continue to smile, look pretty and accept lower pay; to have sex outside marriage – as long as we bow to ruthless corporate objectification; and to divorce our husbands – as long as we continue to do all the gruntwork of domestic cleaning and caring for children and the elderly, entirely for free.

Even in the west, women’s liberation is an incomplete revolution. As today’s feminist activists argue over whose ideology and identity is the purest, the global right stands poised to roll back the advances women have made. Conservatives speak of ‘fixing society’ when what they are really anxious to shore up is the bruised superstructure of patriarchal capitalist control. Feminists must unite to stop the right rolling back the clock on women’s rights and to continue the revolution begun nearly a century ago.

Eighty years after women won suffrage in Britain, young women are waking up to the continuing realities of sexism, misogyny and institutional gender oppression. We have truly begun to ‘reclaim the F word’ – but reclamation is only the beginning. 21st-century feminists have no time for a collective identity crisis. We have a huge fight on our hands.

Laurie Penny is a journalist whose blog, http://pennyred.blogspot.com was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize for political blogging


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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