I don’t usually delve into the realm of politics on my blog, but lately I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of feminism and its relevance in modern society. I’ve read a lot of articles, blog posts and comment forums lately that have left me shaking my head in disbelief. So I feel the need to address some of the misconceptions about feminism and answer a few burning questions, for my own sanity if nothing else.
My musings were sparked by Emma Watson’s UN speech about the campaign He for She. Please watch this if you haven’t already, as I’ll be using this as a reference point.
Is Feminism Past it’s Use-by Date?
Feminism is a movement that began in the late nineteenth century. It aims to establish equal political, economic, cultural and social rights and opportunities for women. The first wave of feminism from about the 1850s to 1930s focused on women’s legal rights-especially suffrage (the right to vote). The second wave, which began during the 1960s was concerned with attitudes towards women’s role in society, family laws, rape laws , female ‘sexual liberation’ and eliminating discrimination. 
A lot has changed since then. We have to re-frame feminism within an entirely new context. In the Western world most women have the right to vote, obtain an education and pursue the same career as their male peers. They have access to birth control and have the option to plan families or not to have children at all. Many live with loving, supporting partners that value them as people and treat them with respect.
It may seem that feminism is no longer relevant, and recently many women have taken to social media to explain why they no longer need feminism. It’s fantastic that so many women feel that they already have an equal status to men-it shows how far we have come. But most of these women are from privileged, Western backgrounds. Just because they don’t need feminism, it doesn’t mean that it is obsolete.
The picture globally is one of inequality. Here are some examples:
- Violence causes more death and disability worldwide amongst women aged 15-44 than war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents 
- At least 1 in 3 women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime with the abuser usually someone known to her. 
- 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries, with women continuing to die of pregnancy-related causes at the rate of one a minute. 
- Less than 8% of actual budgets for Post-conflict Needs assessments (PCNAs) addressed women’s needs. This is despite 90% of war casualties being civilians, most of whom are women and children, and thousands of women raped during conflicts.
- Globally, 10 million more girls are out of school than boys 
- Women account for nearly two thirds of the world’s 780 million people who cannot read. 
- Women produce up to 80% of food in developing countries, but are more likely to be hungry than men, and are often denied the right to own land 
These are all reasons why the world still needs feminism. Even in the Western world, women still experience inequality and discrimination.
Here are some UK statistics:
- On average two women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner in the UK 
- Up to 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other violence each year 
- In 2011 the Forced Marriage Unit advised over 1,450 people related to a possible forced marriage, 78% of whom were women and girls. 
- An estimated 66,000 women in England and Wales in 2001 had been subject to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and at least 24,000 girls were at risk of FGM in 2007. 
- Almost 1 in 3 girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. 
- 36% of people believe that a woman should be held wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted or raped if she was drunk and 26% believe this if she was in public wearing sexy or revealing clothes. 
- 1 in 5 people think it would be acceptable in certain circumstances for a man to hit or slap his female partner in response to her being dressed in sexy or revealing clothing in public. 
- The full time gender pay gap is 10%  and the average part-time pay gap is 34.5% 
- Approximately 70% of people in national minimum wage jobs are women. 
- Up to 30,000 women are sacked each year simply for being pregnant 
- Only 1 in 4 MPs is a woman and women from minority ethnic groups make up only 1.2% of MPs yet comprise 4% of the UK population. 
- At the current rate of progress we would have to wait more than 150 years before seeing an equal number of women and men elected to English local councils. 
- Only 77% of young men agree that having sex with someone who has said no is rape.
Can you believe that last statistic? I can, because I’ve seen these kind of attitudes to women played out by both strangers and men I know. Nearly all women have experienced some form of sexual harassment-from being taunted and cat-called on the street to being groped by male colleagues at work. These may sound like ‘first world problems’, but these attitudes lead to the dehumanisation of women in general.
Some argue that a bit of ‘harmless banter’ never hurt anyone. It’s fair enough when you know the person and both of you are flirting. But some taunts cross the line from playful banter to hurtful slurs. I have experienced strangers in a nightclub telling me what they will do TO me (apparently I have no choice in the matter) or calling me disgusting names for saying that I’m not interested them. I know women who have been called derogatory names for engaging in exactly the same sexual behaviour as men. I know women who have had their naked photos posted online by ex-boyfriends. I have friends that have been followed on their way home and stalked by their exes. Friends that have been raped in my own home town and made to feel like it was their fault.
These are all reasons why we still need feminism.
A Rose by any Other Name
You should know that I’ve not always identified myself as a feminist. In the past I’ve been reluctant to adopt the label purely because of its negative associations. I used to be put off by the idea of a bunch of burly ‘man-hating’ activists with hairy armpits, shouting about their vaginas and describing their menstrual cycles in all the gory detail.
I’ve learned a lot since then, and I now know that feminists come in all shapes and sizes. Some have body hair, some don’t (either way is fine-it’s their choice). Some are genuinely anti-men, the majority love men and have great relationships with them. Some openly talk about their hoohas, others prefer to keep intimate details to themselves. Some feminists, as it turns out, are men.
More recently, I’ve been reluctant to associate myself with the extremist groups who are openly aggressive and abusive towards men. There’s no way I would condone threats or violence towards any group of people. Equally worrying, are those extremists that claim that all acts of PVI are rape. These women are not only undermining the suffering of genuine rape victims, but they are also taking power AWAY from women by suggesting that we do not have a choice in the bedroom. They are hindering our cause rather than helping it, as they are portraying feminism as something that at best shouldn’t be taken seriously and at worst as something to be feared and rallied against.
In the same way that religion has been hijacked by extremists, gender politics has too. But I don’t believe that all feminists are ‘man-haters’ any more than I believe that all Muslims are terrorists or all Christians are homophobic*.
Equal Doesn’t Mean Identical
A common objection I see to feminism is along the lines of: “But men and women are DIFFERENT biologically. We naturally play different roles in society. We’ll never be the same so stop trying to make everyone equal”.
When we talk about equality, we don’t mean that everyone is the same. Of course we have different strengths and abilities and do not all fit the same mould. Equality is about treating people the same-fairly and with respect. Whether we choose the traditional role of wife and mother, or to pursue a career and have no children, all we want are the same opportunities as men.
Feminism is a Man’s Issue Too
Another criticism of feminism is that it ignores discrimination against men. Some men say they are sick of the double-standard whereby women expect to be treated equally but also expect to have doors opened for them, dinners paid for them, and so on. I completely agree that we can’t have it both ways. Some women have relied on the gender stereotype for so long that this has become normal. They expect men to do ‘men’s jobs’ and for them to be treated like princesses. This is not what I, nor the majority of feminists stand for. We want to be treated with the same respect as men, and with that will come some additional responsibilities. We do not want to be wrapped up in cotton wool and treated like fragile, delicate creatures that need protecting. We want to stand on our own two feet and work alongside men as equals.
Some men argue that women have plenty of privileges that men do not-particularly in relation to child care and custody of children. I don’t dispute that. Gender equality is a man’s issue too. As Emma Watson said in her speech, men are just as confined by gender stereotypes as women-for example when their role as parent is not as valued or when they are made to feel ‘weak’ for expressing emotion. Some men are not taken seriously if they are victims of domestic violence or rape, or they are too afraid to report it for fear people will think they are ‘less of a man’. Watson reports the grim statistic that “suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease”.
In the most thought-provoking part of her speech, Watson goes on to say:
“When men are free things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should be free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceived gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.”
I think she hits the nail on the head. Gender IS a spectrum. Everyone has masculine and feminine qualities whether they identify as straight, lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender. We all have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, daughters and sons that contribute differently, but equally to our lives and to society. Supporting women’s rights does not mean you are against men’s rights. They are not mutually exclusive ideals. Instead of taking sides we should be working together to make sure that everyone gets equal treatment and equal opportunities regardless of their gender.
I say all this as a woman from a privileged background, who was raised to believe that I have equal value to men. I had a wonderful education; I have a career that I enjoy and a loving and supportive husband who treats me as his equal. But being privileged doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with those who aren’t. Anyone with compassion for others should be able to see that we’re not quite there yet on our road to equality.
So yes, I do believe that we still need feminism and I support the He for She campaign, though perhaps it would be better expressed as ‘He and She for Us’.
What is your view on feminism today? I welcome relevant and respectful discussion, and please feel free to ask any questions that you may have, but please note that abusive posts or those containing profanities will be deleted.
* Sadly, some people believe these statements to be true. If you do, please do some research and educate yourself, as tarring everyone with the same brush is just ridiculous.
2. World Bank Study World Development Report: Investing in Health, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
3. General Assembly. In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary General, 2006. A/61/122/Add.1. 6 July 2006.
4. UNPF: Maternal mortality figures show limited progress in making motherhood safer, October 2007
6. Calculated from data contained in the UN’s The Millennium Development Goals report 2007, New York: 2007, p11.
7. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Adult Literacy Rates and Illiterate Population by Region and Gender,” 2006.
8. Food and Agriculture Organization, The feminisation of hunger what do the surveys tell us? 2001, and The state of food insecurity in the world 2005, Rome: 2005, p17.
9. Department of Health (2005) Responding to domestic abuse (London: DH)
10. Coy, M., Lovett, J. and Kelly, L., (2009) Realising Rights, Fulfilling Obligations: A Template for an Integrated Strategy on Violence Against Women for the UK, End Violence Against Women Coalition.
11. Forced Marriage Unit (2012) ‘Forced Marriage’ .
12. FORWARD (2007) A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales P27, P25.
13. YouGov Ltd (2010) End Violence Against Women Poll Results.
14. Figures relate to England and Wales only. Home Office (2009) Violence against women opinion polling.
16. King, Mark (2012, 22 November) ‘Gender pay gap falls for full-time workers’ The Guardian.
17. EHRC (2011) Gender pay gaps , p3.
18. Low Pay Commission (2007) National Minimum Wage Low Pay Commission Report 2007, Figure 2.8, p32.
19. Equal Opportunities Commission (2005) Greater Expectations: Final Report of EOC investigation into discrimination against new and expectant mothers in the workplace.
20. Fawcett Society (2010) What about Women? p13.
21. The Centre for Women & Democracy (2011) Representative Democracy? Women in the 2011 Local Government Elections in England.
22. Opinion Matters (2010) ‘Where Is Your Line?’ Survey Summary Report.The Havens – Sexual Assault Referral Centres.