Monday 3 May 2010

Feminism in crisis, a mini-manifesto.

Yesterday I attended a fascinating talk by Nina Power and Lindsey German on 'A Feminist Manifesto For The 21st Century'. Lots and lots of food for thought. As luck would have it, I've also been writing the following 'Feminism In Crisis' declaration/article for Morning Star and Red Pepper this week. And here it is in all its joyless stampy verisimilitude:

Feminism stands at a crossroads. In 2010, women face a choice between completing the social revolution that our foremothers began in the last century or bowing to the demands of the conservative right.

Over the past five years, the internet has driven an exhilarating new interest in real female empowerment, particularly among young women, many of whom grew up, as I did, suspecting that we were the only ones who believed there was more to equality than Spice Girls knapsacks and sexy dancing.

Books such as Cath Redfern and Kristin Aune's recent Reclaiming The F Word chart the rebirth of feminist activism after the perky corporate passivity of 1990s "girl power." However, arguments over issues such as the role of sex workers and trans women have fragmented the new feminist movement into specific campaigns.

While worthy in themselves, groups that campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs do not address the basis of women's oppression today - the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.
Feminists have never agreed with one another on everything, nor should they be expected to– but today more than ever, what the feminist cause needs is a broad coalition of activists, with a clear direction and long-term goals.

Redfern notes that in recent decades the notion of feminism has been somewhat "re-branded”, as “fluffy and unthreatening… more about claiming an ‘empowering’ identity than collective action or concrete changes." It is this focus on the broader structures of gender, politics and economics rather than the niceties of personal and community identity that remains fatally absent from the modern movement.

Feminism is about economics before it is about identity, and only a movement which understands this can effect positive change and defend women’s progress on a national and international level.

The truth is that feminism stands at a crossroads. In 2010, women face a choice between completing the social revolution that our foremothers began in the last century or bowing to the demands of the conservative right. Whilst worthy in themselves, groups that campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs do not address the basis of women's oppression today - the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.

Imperial capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women - as unpaid carers and low-status labourers performing 66 per cent of the world's work, as consumers, making over 75 per cent of spending decisions while controlling only a small proportion of global wealth, as victims of sexual violence and aggression at individual, local and international levels, and as reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed.

Since feminism demanded that women be freed from the economic obligation to marry, be paid equally for all of their labour, be protected from individual and state abuse and be in control of the means of reproduction, patriarchal resistance to feminist revolution is riveted into the mechanisms of late capitalism.

The "backlash" that Susan Faludi identified in her 1991 book of the same name is ongoing, and whilst it may be couched in vengeful moral terms, its basis is wholly economic.

Recent years have seen a strikeback from the markets-and-morals brigade on both sides of the Atlantic, cracking down on the most fundamental victories won by second-wave feminists.

Women's reclamation of the means of reproduction is under particular threat - in 2008, Christian and Conservative lobby groups in Britain attempted to outlaw termination of pregnancy at 20 to 24 weeks, and in the US, state governments compete to think up ever more cruel and unusual ways to punish women for sexual self-determination.

Utah recently ratifed a law whereby a woman who behaves "recklessly" while a fetus is gestating inside her can be charged with homicide.

The British Conservative Party has made it clear that it believes traditionally repressive gender roles are best for society.

In his recent book The Pinch, Tory shadow minister David Willetts makes a sweeping case for how feminism - by encouraging women to enter the workplace and divorce their husbands - has upset the balance of a society based on private property and small, atomised economic family units.

Feminists have taken all the jobs and destroyed social security, says Willetts, declaring that "a welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

Willletts advocates a return to marriage, like the rest of his party, which plans to reward married women for staying at home.

In one respect, Willetts and his ilk are right - the partial emancipation of women really has broken society.

That was the point. That was what it was designed to do.

Feminism was not supposed to be about the occasional drive to get prostitutes off the streets combined with as much chocolate, shopping and low-paid public-sector work as we could stomach.

Feminism was meant to be about a total overhaul of society's rules about work, family, sex, money and power.

That's what 10 generations of women marched, sacrificed, protested, eulogised, fought and died for. It wasn't because they'd heard there was a really excellent shoe sale on. They wanted to break society, and that's what they set out to do.

Somewhere in the last 25 years, that revolutionary energy was compromised. We forgot that gender equality was never supposed to mean the right to be oppressed on equal terms, and the old feminist demands of equal work at home, equal pay at work, dignity in the streets, reproductive freedom and protection from abuse began to be hedged as early as the 1980s.

Faced with overwhelming resistance, the fight for the emancipation of women of all races and classes was downgraded to a politer request for middle-class, white women to be allowed to enter the workplace - as long as we continue to smile, look pretty and accept lower pay - to have sex outside marriage as long as we bow to ruthless corporate objectification, and to divorce our husbands, as long as we continue to do all the gruntwork of domestic cleaning and caring for children and the elderly, entirely for free.

Even in the West, women’s liberation is an incomplete revolution. As today's feminist activists argue over whose ideology and identity is the purest, the global right stands poised to roll back the advances women have made. Conservatives speak of "fixing society" when what they are really anxious to shore up is the bruised superstructure of patriarchal capitalist control. Feminists must unite to stop the right rolling back the clock on women’s rights and to continue the revolution begun nearly a century ago.

Eighty years after women won suffrage in Britain, young women are waking up to the continuing realities of sexism, misogyny and institutional gender oppression. We have truly begun to ‘reclaim the F word’ – but reclamation is only the beginning. 21st-century feminists have no time for a collective identity crisis. We have a huge fight on our hands.


  1. f-ing brilliant piece - it astonishes me how many women seem to think feminism's fight is over and done - somehow a bit passe, a bit 70's - when in reality the sheer enormity of the ongoing struggle is mindblowing.

    As you say 'reclamation is only the beginning. 21st-century feminists have no time for a collective identity crisis. We have a huge fight on our hands.'

  2. I don't even know what to say. Just brilliant! Thank you for writing this.

  3. As Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, pretty much everything in this piece is wrong, including 'and' and 'but'.

    "the basis of women's oppression today - the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism."

    Capitalism hasn't been imperial for getting on for 100 years. While you could argue the toss about Iraq, when otherwise did a capitalist nation last invade another to control her resources ? The Brits' last stab was South Africa in 1900-odd. What it's increasingly been is global - and while the ends - power and control of resources - may be the same, the means are very different.

    I think you'll find those "ancient patriarchal assumptions" boiled down to what were then "unchangeable biological facts". And as those facts changed (control of fertility, lethal conflict a less prominent feature of life, machines replacing male strength) so has the economic and social structure of capitalism changed.

    The point about capitalism is that by its very nature it is adaptive, and it reacts upon and is reacted upon by culture. It's not some master-plan laid down by besuited males at the Bilderberg conference or in the City. So you get a Victorian capitalism heavily impacted by the religion and culture of the day, where Sunday working or employing married women were unthinkable, and you get todays version, where every day is a shopping day and there are huge leisure industries based round a singles lifestyle. Capitalism will adapt - IMHO sometimes in the style of an opportunistic infection, but adapt it will.

    "Imperial capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women - as unpaid carers and low-status labourers performing 66 per cent of the world's work"

    You may as well say that the whole of human existence is based upon women - as they have and rear the babies (or have until very recently). What's capitalist about that ?

    And aren't the societies where women do most of the work mainly subsistence farming-based ? That's not capitalist. Outside of those societies, while women are doing the unpaid caring, what are men doing with their docile bodies ? Aren't they working too ? For capitalists ?

    ".. as consumers, making over 75 per cent of spending decisions while controlling only a small proportion of global wealth"

    Have. Cake. Eat.

    "as victims of sexual violence and aggression at individual, local and international levels"

    Male aggression and sexual predation is one of those unchangeable biological facts which are nothing to do with capitalism and which have in fact changed quite a lot over the years. While it's not nice, we have to take the world as we find it and remember things could be a lot worse, as they were (and still are) in hunter-gatherer cultures. One of the points of what used to be called 'Civilisation' was to suppress the Old Adam.

    Jared Diamond : "Woman after woman, when asked to name her husband, named several sequential husbands who had died violent deaths. A typical answer went like this: "My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder."

    "reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed."

    Done much reproductive labouring recently ? I don't see a lot going on among white, educated women - do you ? And as for sexual autonomy being 'relentlessly policed', have you been out on a Friday night recently - say, in the last 25 years ?

  4. Your grinful misreading holds no fear for me, troll :P

  5. I guess I've just been reading stuff like this for 30-odd years - and it never fails to amaze me how a new generation swallows it (or a related variant) each time.

    I like that 'grinful', btw. Night night.

  6. Good article, thanks!

  7. The blog site Black Looks has a interesting blog that supports your arguement.'Visual Activism to Inform and Educate on the Issues of Gender and Sexuality in S.A.

  8. Oh, this is just fabulous! You'll come under a lot of fire for arguing that 'Feminism is about economics before it is about identity', but I think it's a line to which we should hold strong. Though: it might be worth turning the statement around and asking if identity is entirely economically determined or what portions of feminist ideology aren't coterminous with Marxism. I don't have a clear answer to that, btw, but I think it requires different strands of radical identity politics (especially queers and radical feminists) to converse both between themselves and with more mainstream groups.

  9. Your response to conservative complaints about feminism having wrecked society, is a perfect "traversing of the fantasy". The fantasy in question being the notion of society as some sort of organic coherent whole rather than a random assemblage of conflicts.

    But I do wonder if a feminist movement which has established "aims" will increase or decrease the conflict. To set up a coherent aim is to create a gap within which can grow all sorts of blockages to the path of true conflict: pessimism, puritanism, idealism, defeatism, disappointment, resentment, to mention just a few. New possibilities for liberation will arise out of the ruins. For now, we must simply start to destroy!

  10. 'Feminism is about economics before it is about identity'

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

    I loved this article, and really needed it on a personal level, as I was becoming slightly worn-down by constant attacks on my 'identity politics' and 'petty bourgeois feminism' from supposedly progressive friends.

    Also, it's true that the position on prostitution, the sex industry and pornography by groups like Object and LFN is incredibly frustrating. I'm all for working for a change in social attitudes towards the acceptability of perpetuating these industries, but protesting outside Spearmint Rhino does little to address the economic factors involved and can lead to alienating women in the industry. The feminist infighting on these issues is truly depressing.

  11. P.S. megalulz @ Laban

  12. Yes. No.

    I completely agree that many of the primary issues for underprivileged groups lie primarily around economics rather than sociology/identity - fighting for marriage equality in the US is not the most needed thing, workers rights and non discrimination at work are. It's just that white, middle class, cis-gendered feminists have for so long said "we all need to focus on this, your issues aren't important" that I really do worry when reading posts like this. I worry when our vital issues are put down as "fragment[ing] the new feminist movement into specific campaigns".

    I realise that such initiatives benefit us all, but when we turn up and are told that we/our issues are unimportant, or even invalid or that we aren't real women, something is very broken.

  13. Gabrielle,

    Thanks for the point - I'm sorry for not getting across properly that that's not quite what I meant. Any feminist movement needs to fight for economic liberation *within a context* in which the needs and concerns of non-white, non-wealthy women are not just hastily included - they are paramount.

    My point that feminism isn't just about identity may not have been phrased properly. I think I could more accurately sum up by saying that feminism shouldn't just be about arguing about white, middle-class identity.

    It's the rigidity of white, middle class feminism that has itself caused the movement to calcify, meaning, for example, that in many places in the West the entry of middle-class women into 'the workplace' is supported by oppression of often poor, non-white, immigrant women as low-paid domestic servants.

    The liberation of all women from binary and rigidly expressed physical gendering is part of this *economic* liberation, too. I don't know if you've seen my other work on trans issues (as a cis person with clunkyfeet, naturally) but at the moment I just want to slap most transphobic feminists until they understand that the inclusion of trans feminists within the movement is a no-brainer, and that transphobia stands in the way of building a strong movement.

  14. I do read your work, as much of it as I can get hold of, and a lot of it re transphobia is really good. I suppose reading that I was just afraid of an oncoming bus. Thanks for clearing it up!

  15. No problem - and seriously, thanks for the check.

  16. You're just a Penny lesbian angry, and still is a socialist who disgrace ... go burn your bras is to use your Vibrator in another country

  17. Oh my god, I'm getting that printed on a Tshirt. Priceless.

  18. Looking forward to seeing the picture of you wearing said T-shirt, see, you've got to do it now!

  19. I knew you'd like, I'm sorry for Trool I just wondered what would your reaction

  20. Excellent, timely, piece. Thanks.

  21. My name is Jeffrey. I am a nancy boy.

    I am also a walrus.

  22. simply brilliant, thank you for writing this.

  23. I find these ideas rather silly. It's a bit like complaining about birds being able to fly unaided while women are only able to take to the air with the help of electro-mechanical machines. When all is said and done women will NEVER be equal to men because men are innately and biologically superior to women: physically stronger and faster; more creative and inventive; intellectually unassailable as far feminine gender goes. Protesting, complaining and marching cannot change this any more than it would give you the power of unassisted flight.

    Wise up and stop busting your chops!

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. > "the encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism. "

    It's like a bloody Monty Python sketch.

  26. Even by your standards, this is an absolutely fantastic post. Thank you so much, Laurie. You are brilliant, and this is inspired. :-)

  27. Gervais,there have been some full on female Prime Ministers.Thatcher for one,almost cut my fingers off typing that.Although her politic is not that of this thread i assume,she was questionably a female, wether feminist in creed is open to debate.

    The other Clark, most definatly feminist by action and deed.Both ruled in a male doninated arena,and both excelled, although different poles of the political spectrum.

    The arguement that males are superior by physical construct for me does not hold water.

  28. I think, looking at that comment from Gervais, that until we have sorted through scientific research and publicised it to show that women are as intelligent and craetive and so forth as men, we will still be banging our heads against thick brick walls. Natasha Walter's book Living Dolls goes through some of the so-called scientific claims that men and women have different abilities (mostly based on dubious evolutionary psychology), but it needs to be more thorough and better publicised, I think. It is difficult to persuade men or women that women are equal to men when the majority believes falsely that science says otherwise.

  29. HI Penny!
    one thing, how could i get the updates of your blog via google i became fan but i dont get them (buzz?). I do not have twitter :-(
    are you register in FB blogs?



  30. you are being rather dismissive & reductive of groups concerned with sex work, here. given the percentage of sex workers who report a history of child abuse, there is no getting around the fact that this is an institutional abuse of the weak. it is also not simply unconnected to the other abuses in society - I do not believe there are any groups who 'campaign solely to ban lapdancing clubs' or who merely show an 'occasional drive' to get prostitutes off the street. it is odd to portray this entire area of feminism as so simply superficial!

  31. I understand what you mean about concetrating solely on sex work, but think you're being a bit dismissive. the exploitation of women in the sex industry is inextricably linked to economic structures and capitalism, from low social mobility, female poverty in the Uk and international poverty that means women (and men) are vulnerable to trafficking etc. So, in my view, the international sex industry is part of women's lack of economic power, more so than it is about identity politics.
    As long as we see women as objects, paying them less, devaluing their contribution to society and keeping them in their economic place is easy.

    so, i agree with you, but think that fighting the sex industry is all part of the same fight.


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