International Women’s Day this year runs with the theme, ‘Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures’. But when lots of young women think feminism has either achieved its goals or is no longer relevant to their lives, I wonder whether the day is something to celebrate or not.
What’s the case against the relevance of feminism? Well, you could argue that women have the vote, are protected by the Equal Pay Act and maternity leave legislation, that girls out-achieve boys at GCSE and A levels and at university. Women’s football, rugby, and cricket in the UK is top class, and women’s boxing is rapidly gaining in popularity. You could also argue that young women want to throw off the censorious attitudes of second-wave feminists and wear make-up and high heels without feeling they are being objectified by men, and that women as well as men enjoy pornography.
What’s the case for the relevance of feminism? The Guardian had a shocking article just a few days ago with the headline, ‘Street gang girls now see group rape as “normal”’ (19 February, 2012). Also, the conviction rate for rape cases still lies at around 6 per cent, and 12 per cent of recorded rape cases are listed by police as ‘no crimes’ (Guardian 28 February, 2012). Two women a week die in Britain as a result of domestic violence. And in fact, despite the Equal Pay Act of over 30 years ago, women as a group still earn well below what men as a group earn for the same job. And while maternity pay may give women time to be with their babies for a few short months, women take maternity pay at the high risk of losing out in career progression. And while girls do better than boys at school and in higher education, the proportion of men to women in good jobs rapidly changes in men’s favour in the workplace over time, with a scarcity of women high earners and in company boardrooms. Another article in the Guardian reports calls for change by German female journalists who face a workplace in which ‘only 2 per cent of the editors-in-chief of 360 German daily and weekly newspapers were women’ (28 February, 2012).
Stepping back from these points, feminists have put forward two really important points which are still relevant today. One is about the level playing-field. Can women really be considered equal if they aren’t operating under equal conditions with really equal opportunities? The evidence above suggests that the playing-field is not level or, in other words, there remain structural barriers to women’s equality. And is the value of ‘political correctness’ really to be dismissed so long as women aren’t situated on a level playing-field?
The second point is about distinguishing between how women want to see themselves and how they are seen. Women want to see themselves as individuals; as different from each other; as in solidarity with other women; as a woman, whatever that might mean to them. They want to be equal but also different. But the absence of a level playing-field means that there are still strong social values circulating, which think that biological sex immediately tells you all sorts of things (negative things) about how any particular woman thinks, feels, behaves. There is still a lot of evidence that people make negative assumptions about what women are capable of in the workplace on this basis. This lowers expectations about what women can achieve, and women internalise that sense of inferiority. Or in other words, when women are essentialised, seen as not individuals but only and negatively as part of a group seen primarily through their biology, inequality is naturalised, seen as natural. Another example of the disjunction between how women are seen and how they want to see themselves and be seen, is found in the recent Slut Walks in cities around the world, when women protested against the view that it is OK to think that every woman wearing a short skirt is asking to be raped.
It’s also important to remember that International Women’s Day is not only or even primarily about the situation for women and girls in the UK and other wealthy countries. It’s also about highlighting the importance of education for girls (denied in some countries), helping women directly with micro-credit schemes (giving women an independent earning potential), working to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation (prevalent in some countries). Then there are vexed issues like Muslim women wearing the veil – should we see this as a cultural choice which women should be free to make, or as a patriarchal practice that takes away women’s independent identity? Is it about culture or about individual rights? All these are issues which need to be discussed and debated, and International Women’s Day marks a time which encourages reflection on them.
On balance then, I think that it’s well worth celebrating ‘Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures’ on 8 March.
If you are interested in the questions I’ve raised here, you might be interested in the Open University course, Living Political Ideas, where ideas about gender are considered in a debate over abortion in the US, and in a whole part of the course devoted to ‘The Body in Politics’.