What is the New Feminism? Mar 16, 2010 19:06:05 GMT -5
Post by Erica Chan on Mar 16, 2010 19:06:05 GMT -5
What is the New Feminism?
By Natasha Walter
By Natasha Walter
Although a little out of date in terms of statistics, and situated in Britain, this excellent book (found in the Matheson library on Clayton Campus) deals with very real issues surrounding feminism in a supposedly 'post-feminist' world. Here's a great extract from the introduction to get your mind sizzling!
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Has feminism had its day? It often seems as if a movement for women’s rights must be a thing of the past. Everywhere you look, you see individual women who are freer and more powerful than women have ever been before. You see women driving sleek cars to work through urban traffic; you see women with dreadlocks arguing for the environment on the national news. You hear the confident tones of female politicians; you see the charismatic faces of young female actresses; you read about a 13 year old girl who took a sex discrimination case to an industrial tribunal; you see gaggles of young women downing pints in pubs; you see packs of young girls walking down streets with a swing in their stride. Women live alone, and pay their own bills; women live with men, and don’t bother to get married; women do get married, but they don’t promise to obey their husbands. Women decide not to have children, and spend more time dashing off to work; women decide to have children, and their partners hold their hands during childbirth.
Are we living in the kind of utopia about which women in the nineteenth century could only dream? Perhaps we are. There are almost as many women at work as men; and more women than men now say they would work even if they didn’t have to. We have seen women scaling all kinds of heights; we have seen a woman Prime Minister and a woman head of M15, a woman Speaker of the House of Commons and a woman President of the Board of Trade. Some professions are beginning to admit more women than men; more than half of all newly qualified solicitors are women and nearly half of junior doctors.
These changes are having extraordinary effects on women, their culture and their desires. Young girls, especially, seem to be a new breed of women. Not only do they surpass boys in examinations at all levels, they have begun to speak a new language, and it is one of buoyant confidence. I remember talking to three girls aged 12, 13, and 14, and asking them who their heroines might be. The first chose the Spice Girls: ‘They’ve done it, they’ve made it to the top,’ she said admiringly. The second chose Margaret Thatcher: ‘I respect her forgetting there’, she said. And the third chose Queen Elizabeth I: ‘She didn’t let people boss her around.’
These women are beginning to move somewhere without any markers or goalposts. Although they have heroines, they are making up their lives as they go along. No one before them has ever lived the lives they lead. They are combining traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine work and clothes and attitudes. They are wearing a minidress one day and jeans and boots the next. When they group up, they expect to be able to give birth one year and negotiate a pay rise the next. The raw, uncharted newness of these lives make the older certainties of feminism look outdated. Does that mean that feminism has no part to play in women’s lives today?
On the contrary. Feminism is still here, right at the centre of these new lives. Because beside women’s freedom lies another truth: the truth of their continuing inequality. The constraints that operate upon women are still fierce, and those constraints can come as a terrible shock to these insouciant young women as they move out of school and into their adult lives.
It is difficult for women to confront the reality of their own inequality. Can such Victorian constraints still exist in the late twentieth century? Is their freedom really so uncertain? Does blantant inquality still exist although women have travelled so far and so fast? Tragically, it does. The average woman, with all her new dreams and beliefs, still has an independent income that is only half that of the average man. Forty percent of working women earn less than 150 pounds a week, compared to ten percent of men. when a woman has children, she loses, typically, more than half of the money she would have made throughout her lifetime if she had not had children; but having children typically makes no difference to a man’s lifetime income. Ninety-four percent of an estimated one million homeworkers are women, earning as little as 50 pence an hour for piecework in their own homes. More women than men live on benefits, and a single woman on income support would not even have the means to feed her children the diet laid down in Victorian workhouses. These extreme inequalities, so out of place in our brave new world where girls often seem more sure of themselves than boys, run throughout society. When we talk about women’s power we are still talking about potential rather than reality. 93 out of 100 university professors are menl 96 our of 100 general surgeons, 96 our of 100 company directors.
Feminism has recently been associated more with a movement to change women’s attitudes and society’s culture than with these material inequalities. If feminism is to mean anything to women in this generation, this is an emphasis that must shift. In the seventies, feminism did win concrete battles, especially over equal pay and abortion rights. But it gradually became primarily associated with sexual politics and culture...
This generation of feminists must free itself from the spectre of political correctness. If feminism is to build on all the new female confidence that exists in Britain, it must not be trammelled by a rigid ideology that alienates and divides women who are working for the same end: increased power and equality for women. Feminism is a social movement, like environmental or civil rights movements, that relies on a spreading consensus amongst diverse people. It is not a self-help or religious movement that relies on good behaviour from its disciples and correct attitudes all the time. We do not all have to dress the same, or have sex in the same way, or vote for the same party. The old myth about feminists, that they all wear dungarees and are lesbians and socialists, must be buried for good.
This change is essential for this generation. Young women today are unlikely to want lectures from feminists about their private lives. They have learnt to question the precepts of their parents, their teachers, their politicians and their employers in their search for new identities. However young women dress, however they make love, however they flirt, they can be feminists. They do not want to learn a set of personal attitudes before eing admitted into the club. The search for political equality today must go on alongside the acceptance of personal freedom.
This new freedom also leads us to argue that feminists do not have to be women. Feminism does not have to be something that arises only from personal experience of oppression. In working for an equal society, men must be women’s allies, because unless they take on an equal part of the caring work women cannot hope to go on and on moving into employment and public life. Otherwise our children may be left without proper parents, our sick without proper care, and our homes without any spirit of joy at all. Women need men to work with them in finding ways of preserving and sharing those domestic, small-scale activities that were once the sole preserve of women.
In arguing that what we should ask of feminism now are concrete political, social and economic reforms I am not trying to say that those are necessarily the most important aspects of our lives. Although this book concentrates particularly on women’s inequality at work, of course we all exceed and go beyond our working lives. Love and literature, music and art may well be more important... but look at what we lack. We lack equality, and everything that comes with that. We lack the commitments to parental leave and flexible work that would make men and women equal players in the workforce. We lack support for women facing grinding poverty, for women bringing up their children alone in miserable circumstances. We lack training and education for women in dead-end jobs. We lack legal support and refuge housing for women fleeing violence. We lack women’s voices in the highest courts and debating chambers of the country. We must understand that feminism can give us these things now, if we realy want them. This may sound like a shrunken agenda, but it is the right arena for the new feminism. As I have said, to believe that feminism’s rightful place is in the cultural and personal arena both destroys our freest and subtlest reactions to art and love, as well as removing feminism’s teeth as a strong political movement. But if we can achieve the preconditions for equality, our souls will be free, not framed in the reductive language of victim or oppressor.