128 years ago the matchgirls strike took place in Bow, East London (the Bryant and May Factory is now a very very swanky and overpriced apartment complex). 99 years ago women got the vote (only if they were householders over the age of 30, though). 46 years ago Barbara Castle supposedly did away with the glass ceiling with the Equal Pay Act. 49 years ago abortion was made legal in England, Wales and Scotland. 37 years ago the United Kingdom elected its first female Prime Minister.
It’s now 2017, we have our second female Prime Minister, next year it will be 100 years since women won the vote and today is International Women’s Day, so how far have we really come in terms of equality?
Not far enough if recent political events are anything to go by. Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking…something along the lines of this Simone de Beauvoir quote ‘enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it.’ That’s all very well and good…except we find ourselves, once again, in the midst of a massive backlash, broadly, against political correctness and, specifically, against women’s rights in the Western world.
This year the slogan attached to International Women’s Day is ‘Be Bold For Change’. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m don’t have anything against International Women’s Day or this slogan in principle. In fact, I think celebrating women is, de facto, a good thing. I also practice what I preach and try to be bold wherever possible, even if my instinct is to retreat and be timid in the comfort and safety of my own home. There is no doubt that when women are empowered and gender equality is valued, everyone is better off.
However, this International Women’s Day it’s worth asking how much has changed since last year, remembering how far we still have to go before we have true equality, how we need feminism more than ever and that it’s more important than it’s ever been that the feminism we practice is intersectional.
Why do I think this is all so urgent? Well…just in case you’ve been living under a rock…2017 kicked off with the inauguration of an American president who has infamously said he thinks it’s ok to ‘grab’ women ‘by the pussy’ if you’re a man with a bit of status or fame. Among his staff members in the White House are several former Breitbart employees, namely its executive chairman Steve Bannon. Breitbart is a website which has run headlines such as ‘birth control makes women crazy and unattractive’ and asked questions like ‘would you rather your child had feminism or cancer’? Not to mention the fact that the site promotes white nationalism, racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas. These ideas do not only live online, we’re seeing a backlash against the left and social democratic parties across Europe, with the far right rising to fill its place in the popular psyche as well as the polling booth.
More than this, there are women around the world who do not have the same rights that I enjoy here in England. Sexual violence persists globally, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone, access to education for women around the world is still a problem and where to we begin on abortion? In Ireland, abortion is still illegal. It is also true heavily restricted in Poland, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries around the world. In the United States it is legal but by no means as accessible as it is in England, Scotland or Wales.
We need feminism more than ever, and we need that feminism to be outward looking and intersectional. In her 1938 essay Three Guineas Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’ This is the sort of outlook we need to adopt today, it’s not enough to wave instagrammable placards at a march or two when we, personally, feel under threat. We must think beyond our own experience and reach out to women who need support every day, in whatever way we can.
Pause and think about this question for a moment:
Have we achieved true equality for women at home, in Britain, and around the world?
The answer is, simply, no. The issue is not just that feminism is being used to sell us crappy clothes made by other women for less than the minimum wage in a country far enough away for us to put it out of our minds (see fast fashion), or that it’s currently under attack from the ascendant political right, the big problem is that the breaks on true equality have been well and truly jammed for quite a while now. We were in trouble long before Donald Trump was elected. For too long when it comes to feminism and International Women’s Day we have been hearing more about glossy board room execs who ‘lean in’ and women in media than we have about the women working around the world to clothe and feed them.
Feminism might be more ubiquitous than ever but its work is far from done.
As a litmus test for how far we’ve really come, let’s scroll back through history a little bit. The first national conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement took place in Oxford in 1970. This is generally seen to be the moment at which feminism in Britain became a coherent political movement for the first time. The women present there asked for four things, here’s where we’ve got to with them:
1. Equal pay and job opportunities
We still don’t have this. In a piece in Prospect in 2006 economist Alison Wolf showed that the 16 per cent pay gap actually masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women – around 13 per cent of the workforce – who have ‘careers’ and earn just as much as men. In fact, the gender pay gap for working women in their 20s is closing. However, the other 87 percent who just have ‘jobs’, sometimes part time, often organised around the needs of their families, earn a lot less. Our modern feminism, of leaning in, is a movement of that 13 percent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble. The World Economic Forum reckons it could take 170 years to close the gender pay gap.
2. Equal education
Women now outperform boys at school and university but this hasn’t trickled down to reflect in earnings and life chances for those who don’t go to university.
3. Free contraception and abortion on demand
The morning after pill is not free nor is it easily available, abortion still requires sign off from two medical professionals and, let’s not even get started on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
4. Free 24-hour childcare
Britain now has some of the most expensive childcare in Europe. Which, when women earn less than men, on the whole, poses a bit of a problem.
So far, so not very good. Next year will mark one hundred years since women (over the age of 30, who owned their own homes) got the vote but, somehow, we’ve just witnessed the inauguration of a leader of the free world who thinks it’s OK to denigrate women and roll back their rights. ‘But we are resisting him’ I hear you say. You’re not wrong. Thousands of women marched in solidarity around the world, including through London, against what Donald Trump represents. They carried catchy slogan banners, Instagrammed pictures of themselves to prove that they were there and some of them wore quaint pink pussy hates like their American counterparts. On the surface of things that’s enough to make you think feminism is alive and well.
It’s not. If you took to the streets of London to demonstrate against Donald Trump I wonder, where have you been at the Repeal the 8th protests on Irish abortion law? Where were you when people gathered outside Yarl’s Wood to express their anger that women were being detained like criminals without charge? When was the last time you elevated another woman professionally or called out sexism in the workplace? Why have you not been instagramming about how we need better maternity rights if we’re ever going to close the sodding gender pay gap? Where were we at last weekend’s march in support of our NHS which women in this country rely on?
Donald Trump is rather convenient; he provides an easy common enemy around which left-leaning women can rally. But he is a symptom of a bigger problem, not its sole cause and he didn’t come out of nowhere.
Up until last week when Trudy Harrison became the MP for Copeland we had more sitting male MPs than we had ever had women sitting in Parliament, and let me repeat this one more time: you still can’t get a legal abortion in Ireland and two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone (which the government knows all about but continues to cut provisions to help).
Celebrate women today, be proud of how far we’ve come but don’t forget how far we have still to go. As a woman, your country is the whole world and you can be an activist making a difference, big or small, every single day.
You might also be interested in:
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.