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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant