21st century feminism

Friday, 30 April 2010

Election 2010

Janet Street Porter appeared on Question Time last night. Sat amongst the suits she raised the issue of women in the election. There's a clip here or the full version here. I'm not a fan of Porter, but I admire her for getting stuck in the political debate. The PM debates have been great, but have cut out women in a dramatic way from the public view. No TV channel was even prepared to allow a women to host it: boys and their (new) toys.

Lisa Hallgarten, Director of Education for Choice, blogs over at the F Word about reproductive rights and how the election may affect them. 

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Election 2010: Where are the women and where are the feminists?

There has been some discussion of the upcoming UK Election in the feminist blogosphere, but not as much as I expected. If you are posting about it or know of some good posts that I've missed, please leave a link in the comments. Perhaps as we enter the final week things will hot up! 

In the meantime, here are a few links where I've found feminists commenting on the election...

Fawcett's all women hustings (27th April) featuring Harriet  Harman (Labour), Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dems) and Theresa May (Conservatives) has been a central talking point. You can re-live the experience with the podcast. Or read about what feminists are making of it all at Girl Brain and the F-Word.

I've seen a few pieces supporting all-women shortlists. There is a great article over at the F-Word by Ros Ball. And I never thought I'd find myself agreeing with Janet Street Porter over at the Mail. 

Amelia Gentleman over at the Guardian takes stock of the lack of women MP's prominence in the election campaigns of all the parties. She says:

"The increasingly presidential style of the UK general election campaign has edged senior women politicians out of the forefront of the political debate, shifting focus instead on to the wives of the three party leaders, a number of prominent female Labour MPs conceded today." 

Natasha Walter adds here voice to the debate about the invisibility of women in politics in her article Women have gone missing, and new sexists are dusting off old theories.

The Centre for Women and Democracy are putting on a positive front celebrating Main parties field record number of women candidates, but my blood is boiling at the stat tagged on the end of the piece... 

"There are 11 constituencies where the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates are all women, and 262 in which they are all men."

Holly Dustin over at The New Statesman is asking why violence against women is being left out of the TV debate?

Ruth Sunderland at the Guardian is asking what female voters want beyond the mother/wife stereotype?

Finally Jess McCabe highlights the Campaign against Tory plans for marriage tax breaks

So there we have it. Again, please leave a link for any posts you're writing about the election or any good ones you've read.

Birmingham Council Staff Are Celebrating This Week

If you missed the news, Birmingham Council staff won a significant victory against years of discrimination towards female workers working in what were regarded as less significant "women's" jobs. Individual female workers had been under-payed thousands in a system which systematically favored male workers and seemingly "masculine" work. BBC reports here. Zoe Williams comments here

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Election 2010: St. Gillian?

Mrs Gillian Duffy. What do you think? She's everywhere. The fall-out from Gordon Brown's comments about her has dominated the election debate all day, not to mention the Prime Minister's every waking thought, and who knows how it will affect the big day. You can watch the full exchange here. For what it's worth here are my 2 moments of feminist clarity about the row.

Thought number 1... I'm gutted that Gordon Brown made the comments, calling her a bigoted woman was BAD, but if you take a look at the conversation he had with her, she's no saint either. "All these Eastern Europeans what are coming in... Where are they flocking from?" If a shaven-haired pierced young man had made the comments I'm not sure the national outrage would have quite been the same. Just because she's a granny, doesn't mean she can't also be bigoted in her opinions. 

Thought number 2... Seeing two male reporters harangue her afterwards, when she clearly wanted to walk away (it can't be easy to process that Gordon Brown has just called you a bigot), was a taste of things to come. She's at the centre of a media storm and all I seem to hear are men trying to use her to make a political point one way or another. Andrew Sparrow's General Election Live Blog makes a couple of choice remarks:

3.27pm... Men in suits are hanging around outside like expectant fathers. It's either going really well in Duffy's front room, or really badly. I bet it's the former. An apology goes a long way to mending hurt feelings.

4.37pm... I've just heard my colleague Jackie Ashley, on the BBC, suggest this would never have happened if Sarah Brown had been with her husband. And what does Sarah think of it all? Heaven knows. 

Will it cost Brown the election? Who knows.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Choice. A Dirty Word?

So, I bought Company magazine (May) and the article’s not bad. “What is Feminism in 2010?” it asks and any answer that includes mention of Catherine Redfern, the Fawcett Society, Kat Banyard, Spare Rib magazine, Jessica Valenti… (etc. you get the picture) can’t be too wide of the mark. It’s a great intro for anyone totally unfamiliar with modern feminism and it might even entice them to find out a bit more and form their own opinions. Not to mention the fact that I’m thrilled feminism is being talked about in a glossy mag. But, (there had to be a but…) in places it falls short (picture of a burning bra anyone?). It could have been so much more (it hardly sells the movement). And then there’s the issue of “choice”.

Choice seems to be one of the most divisive debates in feminism at the moment. Choices women make, the liberty to make choices, the implications of those choices for other women, the pursuit of free-choice at all other costs… it can turn two women who claim to be liberated, claim to be independent, claim to be feminist, into arch enemies. And the main thrust of the Company article seems to be promoting it as the central tenet of feminism today. I don’t think Company have got it wrong as such, for many women free choice is what defines feminism, but there is a whole world of feminism out there which doesn’t think that any choice made by a woman is automatically feminist.

Like oil and water, the two camps divide. Personally I find myself panicking in the middle. I procrastinate about choice anyway. I especially hate big choices. I think it’s part of being an academic. You train your mind to look at every angle, to step back, to consider, to realise everyone and everything is subjective in some way or another, to think and think hard. So I’ve been thinking about choice, and women’s choices, and feminism, and the rut the argument can often fall into. If you pushed me I’d be in the camp which maintains some choices women independently make, are just that: independent women’s choices, made independently. They’re not feminist choices. I know that some feminists would disagree and personally I want to keep listening and discussing it, because I’m sure that some people would say some of the things I hold to be feminist, aren’t. It’s not easy, especially when there are such strong feelings involved, people’s lives and people’s very selves. But I can’t help but feel the division over choice indicates something else, something bigger. I don’t have an answer about women’s choices, but perhaps it’s not the choices that are wrong, it’s the question.

And the most important thing of all is what makes that feminist choice possible?

Is choice ever a neutral, independent judgement? Any choice? By anyone? Of course not. We are all affected by our environment, our beliefs, our upbringing, our friends, our education, our experience etc. We don’t think and choose in a vacuum. And so women, (who now, after feminism’s past battles, have more choice than ever before) never make choices in an ideological vacuum, no-one ever does. The task that feminism has is to decide what constitutes feminism now? What is a feminist choice? And the most important thing of all is what makes that feminist choice possible?

For me that’s the big issue and it comes down to the simple and central proposition of feminism: that women are equal to men. I think so much ground has been gained by women entering the public world of men in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s but I think there is a long way to go for that world to become a more gender inclusive environment where women feel they can make their choices and remain a valued, equal, and most of all active, member of society.

What does that mean in reality though? Well, I’d like to choose to take my baby into work with me (I’m dreaming dreams here, bear with me) to have facilities available to accommodate that, to be able to undertake some of my work at home in the evenings when my baby’s asleep, to live in a community where that was normal, to have a partner who takes equal weight in domestic and childcare arrangements, to live in a society where fatherhood impacts on work too (beyond 2 weeks) and that’s OK… I could go on. But I can’t make that choice if it’s not available to me. And so the choices I can make are a) get childcare that is away from my work and away from me; or b) don’t work.

For me it modelled something different, a different way of seeing women in the workplace.

I was invited to lecture at an independent college when my son was about 18 months old. It included taking part in a teaching week and I would need to be there 3 nights. They invited me, my son and a carer (his dad came in the end). They provided meals and accommodation for the 3 of us. I was bowled over. Their reasoning? Well, there were women on the course who had children and they did the same for them too, it mean they got my expertise and they felt it was an investment. It paid off not only for me, but also for the women (and men!) on their course, as well as students looking at coming on their courses. What did they get out of it? For a start they got a hugely grateful lecturer, who put 110% into the work she did for them. They got me on board. So I was back the following term doing extra work there. I expect my future working with them will extend well beyond my childbearing years. For me it modelled something different, a different way of seeing women in the workplace. Needless to say it was a rare occurrence.

So, we do need to debate the choices we make as women, not all choices are feminist choices, but as feminists we also need get beyond that and to continue to push the boundaries of the ‘choice’ there is, how women are seen in society and how they are able to play an equal part in it.

To be honest I think I have more questions than answers. I think I need to go and think about it some more…

ps. if you made it to the end you deserve a medal! Normal shorter posts will follow! 

Saturday, 24 April 2010

company magazine

Holly Combe over at the F Word writes a few more reflections on Company Magazine's engagement with contemporary feminism. Apparently they have now taken down the quiz because of criticism on twitter. 

After a bit of poking round on the internet I found out that the quiz was originally in Ellie Levenson's book The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism. She talks about the situation on her blog here. And reposts her quiz here. I've not read Levenson's book, but from a read through the comments on amazon, I'm not sure I'd enjoy it. 

Tuesday, 20 April 2010


There are a few interesting/annoying/hair-raising items that have crossed my radar recently which I thought I'd pass along for your reading pleasure...

An Iranian Cleric has blamed women's promiscuity for earthquakes. Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi said, "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes." This is so ludicrous it is almost laughable. Almost, apart from the fact that 1.) Iran has had a number of devastating earthquakes due to its geographical location, not to mention the capital Tehran is on a fault line. 2.) people believe such things and 3.) they use this kind of rhetoric as a potent patriarchal tool. Natural disaster = opportunity to crack the whip at women who refuse to toe the line.

On a completely different note, I heard a great interview with writer Helen Simpson this morning on Radio 4 Woman's Hour. The subject of her work is the humdrum minutiae of everyday life (usually women's) which she masterfully uses to make comments on big global, social and political issues. You can hear three of her short stories from her new collection In Flight Entertainment on Radio 4 this week. The first is Squirrel.   

David Mitchel writes a great piece about the woeful announcement that Cambridge University Union is offering pole dancing lessons. 

Company Magazine is seeking to engage its readers with feminism. Good? Bad? I don't know. I've yet to read the piece or take the quiz for that matter... 

*edit* Company Magazine withdrew the quiz because of criticism on twitter. 

Monday, 12 April 2010

Jack, James and wasn't there another one...

So disappointed to see Labour's manifesto cartoon. Sadly, it's an advert for gender stereotyping. I could overlook the fact that the little squiggly family has two boys and only one girl (it couldn't possibly be two girls and one boy could it?) if it wasn't for the following:

Joe, the dad, gets introduced by name "that's Joe," Jane gets the tag line "his wife." So, it immediately sets up its male audience: We don't meet Jane and "her husband" Joe. Bear with me it gets worse.

Dad announces he "just wants to take care of his family." Good for him. Lucky family. All being cared for like that. And then he gets to chat to the disembodied voice about a new industrial revolution. "Ambitious."

Mum's not talking about the revolution. She's too busy sorting out "Gran" (who doesn't like her biscuits) and the kids who are snapping round her ankles (for cash). Apparently, she needs "all the help she can get." You bet she does, that's one huge stereotype that she's got to break out of. Oh, but she'll be safer when she's alone in the big-wide-world because she's got all those lovely male policeMEN cycling around.

But the worst bit for me was the kids. James gets to show off his knowledge (what's the capital of peru?), Jack is a radical and is reassured his voice will get heard (save the hedgehogs). Sadly Jill doesn't even get a voice. There's no little vignette of her moment in the spotlight. She's invisible. 

It's not a proud moment to be a Labour supporter who's a feminist.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Quotas, Female MPs and Turning Round the Telescope


And they’re off! The election is now everywhere in the UK (May 6th, if you’ve not heard), so I thought I’d bring up an issue I’ve been pondering starting a discussion about for a while: the dearth of female MPs. At the moment the UK parliament is at 19.6% representation of women, 61st in the list of nations. In January a cross-party conference chaired by Speaker John Bercow, recommended that, if the paltry 19.6% stat didn’t improve in the next election compulsory quotas should be introduced, and this is something I would wholeheartedly welcome.

Mandatory quotas are not always popular. Some protest that it’s not about whether an MP is female, male, gay, straight, black, white, vegan, carnivore  … It’s about what their policies are, what their politics are. Others, including feminists and some female MPs, protest that quotas would be unfair. Female MPs don’t want an uneven playing field, they want to win a seat because they’re the best candidate, not because they’re women.

But the last time I looked democratic government was meant to be about people. About the people of a particular country, not about the career of a particular person. We’ve come a long way in the last couple of hundred years. We’ve learnt that it doesn’t just have to be the King/Queen, who rules the country; we even realised it doesn’t just have to be the aristocracy (aka. the King/Queen’s chums); in the end we conceded that everyone, including poor people and women should get a say as to who runs the show, and - on paper - should get a shot at sitting in the velvet seats of power. But, for women, it’s time it was more than a shot.

"the women of this country deserve to be represented in the governance of this country in equal measure to the men"

When we focus on individual MPs, who want it to be ‘fair’ (whatever that means), who want to be sitting in Parliament because they are the best, because they beat everyone, man or woman, to it, we’re looking down the telescope the wrong way, everything is made tiny and individualised to the point where the wider horizon is lost. The wider horizon is that the women of this country deserve to be represented in the governance of this country in equal measure to the men. It is not enough to continue to say that men can sympathise/empathise/represent/politicise/speak/write/govern on behalf of the women. Oh, and the men that are elected must be better than the women they competed against because they won! Women are available, educated, and equally competent to serve as MPs. It is time we were represented equally in the leadership of the nation in our own right. And, if a particular women wants to ‘beat the boys’ there’s a whole world of out there that doesn’t have quotas, but when it comes to democratic government how can we settle for anything less? It’s time to turn round the telescope. What do you think?

For more info about women in the UK general election, have a look at the Fawcett Society’s ‘What About Women?’ campaign.