Thursday 1 May 2008

Mayday Socialist Feminist stomp!

A very merry M'aidez to you all. I was asked to give a speech, yesterday, at the Housmans Bookshop in London. This is an extract from what I said, and my thoughts have been formed by a detailed debate over at my personal blog.

A sea-change is taking place in contemporary feminism, particularly in the cities. Feminism is moving out of the universities and back onto the streets, as women of all backgrounds realise that practical action, class agitation and the rights of ordinary, working women are, and always have been, the future of the movement.
Midway through writing this article on Monday, I had a pregnancy scare. My period was a couple of days late, I was spotting but not cramping, I was off my food… I panicked.
It didn’t take me long to decide that I would want to terminate the pregnancy, and that meant a litmus test for my socialism: should I spend my limited savings, money that could be going towards vital schooling, on a quick, safe, private abortion, or should I go through the stress and psycho-physical trauma of asking for an abortion on the NHS?Fortunately I got the familiar fisting cramps that night and was soon happily curled around a hot water bottle, but by that time I’d learned two things: one, that abortion and reproductive rights, like so many other feminist concerns, are primarily questions of class and economics. Two, that when you’ve had a pregnancy scare, ‘Alien 2′ is not the film to watch to calm yourself down.
Abortion is a class issue. My organisation, Feminist Fightback, is currently lobbying and demonstrating in protest at the abortion rights retractions currently on the Commons table as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would cut the time-limit on later-term abortions.
This will not affect rich women, who have always been able to access abortions when they wanted them. It will affect vulnerable women who have no choice but to throw themselves on the mercies of the NHS postcode lottery and pray that they get a short waiting list and two pro-choice doctors.
Germaine Greer said, in her introduction to the Female Eunuch, that she could only speak about women of her own age, class and background. Very worthy, one might think, apart from the small fact that it was a blinkered, heinous and lazy approach that meant that one of the most influential political books of the decade only mentioned middle-class, educated, white women with prospects similar to Ms Greer’s.
Young feminists today are realising that in order to further our cause we must look beyond our own experiences. An extremely bright young working-class woman told me yesterday: “Rightly or wrongly, I regard feminism as it exists today as the territory of university-educated middle-class women with the privilege of spending some of their time debating privilege.”
While I would never dream of arguing that feminist theory, feminist blogging, etc is anything but worthwhile, to somebody whose concerns, through economic necessity, are more about finding and maintaining a job that will support them it cannot help but seem alien, or even irrelevant. The mainstream feminist collective appears not to care particularly about the realities of life as a working-class woman ‘
That, thanks to the oversights of Greer and her ilk, really is how feminism has come to be seen in many circles, despite the fact that it is fundamentally a socialist issue that transcends class. But that is changing, and I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s changing now.
Young women today, whatever their background, are finding themselves more socially and financially unstable than they have been for generations. As well as being more independent, we’re more likely to enter adulthood with massive amounts of debt, we face more pressure and competition to do well, our options and finances are more precarious, and we are more likely, whatever our level of education, to end up in hard graft, minimum wage jobs, as opposed to the glittering careers and model family lives so many of us were told to aim for.
This is part of what puts us in a position to empathise and share concerns with working women more than, perhaps, our mothers did. We are also aware, as 21st-century women, what it means to overwork for little reward within a patriarchal capitalist system that is fundamentally opposed to feminine needs.
After the social mobility of the mid-century, young women are finally coming to realise once more that the simple fact of being female puts our work, our capital value, on a different semiotic scale from that of our male classmates. For all of these reasons and more, feminism is turning again towards socialism as its natural counterpart, spearheaded by enterprising new groups like Feminist Fightback making links with workers organisations and trying to join forces with the dispossessed.
This isn’t about posh girls flirting with communism because they don’t want to pay their taxes.
We have no right to take control of someone else’s issue, no right to stomp into a territory we might not fully understand with our big mostly-white middle class feet. What it is about is people who’ve been lucky enough to have greater social opportunities and a platform using those opportunities and that platform to advance the cause of working women and to recognise that as women and as workers our goals are the same.
And then - crucially - it’s about making space on that platform and space in that debate for working-class women, women who may be bringing up kids alone, who may be working too many hours on minimum wage and may not have time or energy to blog or to organise direct action.
This is going to mean that middle-class feminists face the daunting task of working for change without the moral high ground, which is something that we are traditionally bad at. But we do not need the moral high ground to be agitators. Instead of ignoring our privilege, and by definition the concerns of the less privileged, we need to start using the advantages we’ve been given to form links, pursue local action and work for change, without necessarily expecting to be thanked and lavished with praise.
Like the men who helped push women’s suffrage through parliament 80 years ago, like the whites who marched with Luther King in the sixties, we have a duty to give help where we can, and then to step aside.

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