My activism included being Women's Officer for Graduate College, at Lancaster Uni and volunteering in services for women victims of violence, and for a project supporting young women when I moved to London. But at the same time, the movement seemed to be fragmenting, into theorists (caught up analysing different types of feminism, and pontificating on very high level theory) and activists, who knew there was still a need to campaign, in a world of unequal pay, where up to 2 women every week died as a result of domestic violence. Meanwhile younger women, as I discovered doing my PhD research, seemed alienated from the word feminism as a consequence of its depiction as being solely about man hating. This situation was not helped by the lack of leadership from feminist writers such as Natasha Walter (a conference speaker, see below), who argued that the gains we'd made were such that there would be a natural trickle down through our society, ending gender stereotypes, sexism and so on. But we seemed to forget that gains that have been made can be taken away, or undermined.
But the rallying cry at the conference, attended by over a thousand women, was that feminism is back and a force to be reckoned with. The savage budget cuts, which disproportionately affect women, combined with the hypersexualisation of western culture, and the increasingly extreme use of women as sexual objects, seems to have fired a new generation of women to get involved, and invigorated the desire of older feminist for social change.
Re the conference itself, the morning's panel was on Women in Public Life, chaired by Ceri Goddard, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk. Fawcett is one of the oldest organisations for women's equality, started in 1866 to fight for the vote, the right to own property and so on. So unfair did the Society find the June 2010 budget, that they launched a bid to get a Judicial Review of the budget, under equality legislation, on the grounds that the government is legally obliged to conduct an Equality Impact Assessment, to ensure that its policies don't impact unfairly. The Guardian reported this week that the government admitted that this assessment was not carried out, and they were said to be "stunned" at this first ever legal challenge to a budget, which have always previously been seen as sacrosanct. Fawcett is still absorbing the impact of this week's Comprehensive Spending Review, but Goddard highlighted a few points, among them: 65% of public sector workers are women, so the 490,000 public sector job cuts will inevitably impact more on women. Women are more often users of public services, as overall, we earn less and own less. According to Fawcett, women face a triple jeopardy, of benefit cuts, job losses and the increasing care gap. Since women undertake 89% of home care, who do you think will be expected to fill the gap in care that will result in cuts to services? For more on how the CSR affects women, see the website of the Women's Budget Group, a hub of economics and social science professors, at www.wbg.org.uk
Other speakers on this panel included the inspirational Helena Kennedy, Rahila Gupta, and Lindsey Hills. Kennedy, famous for her outstanding work in the legal profession, encouraged other women to get involved in public life, put themselves forward to be leaders, despite the glass ceiling which prevents many women from getting to the top of their professions, and the tokenism of institutions that seem to feel that as long as they have one female employee at a high level, that particular box is ticked. This was a message I heard throughout the day, but I have to say I wish that some of the women who have already 'got there', would pass on concrete advice on how to do just that, or perhaps set up mentoring opportunities to encourage women in moving upwards. This is just not about the politics of representation, having equal numbers of women MPs (still a far off dream), or Supreme Court judges (at the moment, there's just one!), but aslso being aware that having women in office can be a lever for change. As Vera Baird QC (appointed Solicitor General in 2007) said in a later workshop, when she joined parliament in 2001, following on from the influx of women into parliament in 2007, there were all party parliamentary groups on issues such as beer, and whisky, but none on violence against women.
BUT these new women MPs set up such a group, which has been instrumental in the previous government's response to violence against women. Kennedy acknowledged that, when in power, Labour failed to sufficiently regulate the banks and financial markets and caused much of the country's debt by bailing out the banks, but women such as the much derided Harriet Harman were instrumental in pushing through legal changes such as making criminals out of the men who pick up prostitutes, rather than the prostitutes themselves.
Usually on panels such as this, only the great and the good are represented. But this conference gave a nod to feminism's need to include all women, such as Lindsay Hills, who spoke very movingly about the stigmatisation she faced when she became a mother in her teens, and how very hard it was to get training and suitable employment, and adequate housing. She powerfully dismantled the myths around young mothers, and demonstrated, (through talking about her own achievement in holding down a job, single handedly raising two children, and still finding time to campaign through YWCA, and mentor other young mums) how woefully our society underestimates and stigmatises such women. You may argue that she's an exception, but I know from my own voluntary work at a young mum's project, that there are many like her, equally talented, strong, and determined to build better lives for themselves and their children.
I've written at some length already, and could write much more, but will confine myself to briefly mentioning the two workshops I went to. The first was on Violence against women as a hate crime, and featured speakers who included content on how feminist activism has brought about changes in legislation, from first making domestic violence an offence back in the 70s, rather than as previously seen a private matter between husband and wife, to making it possible for women to either take up an injunction privately through the courts, against a violent partner, more easily than was previously possible, or to have partners charged with an offence by the police. There's much more to say about this, and I'm happy to correspond with any reader who wants more information. But the message from all speakers was that there is still more to do, especially in a society where some estimates claim that one in four women has been raped, yet only one in 20 of reported rapes result in a conviction.
I also (completely by accident as I wandered into the room thinking the workshop was on something else, and was so gripped by the excellent presentation that I stayed) attended an anti porn presentation. The gist of this was that our culture is now hypersexualised, via the plethora of images and communication media that surround us. Sex is everywhere, but not a healthy version of sex based on equality between partners, but a representation of sex that increasingly uses imagery drawn from pornography, and depicts women as prostitutes (or alarmingly, as childwomen) and men as punters and pimps. This was demonstrated by an analysis of the images of women used in advertising and culture in the 70s, compared to contemporary images which depict women as always sexually available, and whose bodies are their only worthwhile assets. Even powerful women is such disparate fields as movies and sport, are depicted in this way. Meanwhile pornography itself is booming business of 75 billion a year, and the growth of websites offering images of brutalised and dominated women is increasing.
The speaker put forward the idea that our culture is grooming young children for sex, through the omnipresence of such images, also by targeting younger and younger girls and boys. For example, the Bratz dolls have an accompanying website which encourages its young consumers to look 'hot', and dress themselves in a way that is deemed sexually alluring. There were many more examples than I can include here, and also mention of studies that have attempted to measure the effects of objectifying women's bodies on consumers, such as the American Psychological Association report in 2007, that apparently found that this objectification can lead (surprise surprise) to low self esteem, obsession with body image, and is implicated in eating disorders. There are organisations researching and campaigning on this issue however, such as www.object.org.uk, and the pink stinks campaign.
Following on from this, Natasha Walter was one of the speakers in the final session. Discussing her latest book Living Dolls, the return of sexism, which explores the issues mentioned in the last paragraph, said that in her earlier writing (see beginning of this post), was overly optimistic, and did not appreciate how regressive policies and attitudes towards gender, would impact on gender relations. She said that much of the press coverage of the book had focused on how she didn't, apparently, look like an angry feminist. But, "Guess what?" she told us, " I am angry", at the current state of affairs. However, she did say she had found a sense of hope, in meeting so many young women who are committed to activism, and campaigning for change, and how important it is to hold that hope in balance with the awareness of the tremendous challenges that face us.
The conference ended with a rousing call to arms from Finn Mackay, the young founder of the London Feminist Network (http://www.ldnfeministnetwork.ik.com/home.ikml), the group who organised this conference. She urged us to action, and not only women. She stressed the importance of men in becoming involved in this action for social change, and thanked those men present for attending. Finn quoted Andrea Dworkin's assertion (incidentally a women much vilified as a man hater) that she wasn't a feminist because she hated men, but rather because she believed in the humanity of men, despite the evidence to the contrary. Finn also emphasised the importance of our own coalition of groups aligning with others such as the TUC, that have important roles in the current struggle.
As for me, all week I've been feeling like we were on the way back to the 80s, most of you will know what that means. But the conference helped me to remember that the 80s were also a time of tremendous social activism, that brought about (some) change. So this time, maybe we need to not only campaign for change, but try and figure out how to embed the changes we will surely achieve, so thoroughly in our world, that we move onwards to a more equal future, rather endlessly being thrust back into a less equal past.