It may not seem like the most exciting way of spending Reading Week, but sitting in a room with several hundred feminists was an oddly powerful experience. Organised by UK Feminista, an organisation set up last year to promote feminist activism, the Fem conference (this year Fem11) provides a space for discussion and education around issues of gender equality.
Although it was inspiring to see so many taking the time to engage with issues of women’s rights, I cannot help but feel that such an event has one major flaw. Most, if not all, of the women taking part in this conference were already feminists. They therefore already understand the obstacles that prevent men and women from achieving true equality, and are already taking the first steps towards tackling the problem. Surely it is not ourselves that we need to convince? Surely it is better to get out of the conference hall and into the world, doing our best to inspire activism as we go?
In the wider world, there seems to be an attitude that feminism is no longer needed. It is true that over the past 100 years that huge strides have been made in gender equality in the UK. However, one thing that was made worryingly clear at Fem11 is that not only do we have a long way to go in order to close the gender gap once and for all, but current government policy is actually in danger of reversing the important achievements that have already been made in the name of gender equality.
Today, only 22% of MPs are women. On average, women in the private sector are paid £10,000 less than their male counterparts in the same job. Derogatory and patronising depictions of women are everywhere – in advertisements for Boots and Virgin Atlantic, James Bond films, ‘chick lit’ and much more. Lads’ mags, pornography and lap dancing clubs exploit and objectify women and encourage attitudes that lead to violence against women.
Writing in The Guardian, Tanya Gold asks why the feminist movement seems to have stalled. Feminism has lost its importance, even for women. Arguably this has something to do with the stigma attached to the very term ‘feminist’. In fact, many women seem outright afraid of the label, thinking it brands them ‘butch lesbians’ or prudish. As a feminist, I would like to point out that I am neither a butch lesbian nor a prude. Furthermore, as a feminist I feel I should point out that, even if I were, there would be nothing wrong with this.
During the current political climate where cuts and austerity seem to be the only priority, the issue of women’s rights has become lost.The Fawcett Society claims that it is women who will be hit the hardest by the government’s cuts. With around 65% of the public sector workforce being women, cuts in these departments will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on women than men- particularly when female-dominated areas of the public sector are facing the worst of the job losses.As women tend to use state services much more than men, women will be more adversely affected by benefit and service cuts. This includes cuts to housing and child benefit, domestic violence support services and social care services. In addition to this, it is likely that women will be left to fill the gaps as social and childcare services are withdrawn. Women will become the load-bearers of David Cameron’s “Big Society”.
With such a picture before us, it is evident that feminism still has a pragmatic relevance. As we see fewer and fewer women in the workplace and some of the most vulnerable unable to access vital support services, we are in danger of turning back time. The feminist agenda is therefore just as important now as it was forty years ago.
To become a feminist does not mean that you have to stop shaving your legs. Or that you have to practice a reverse-misogyny and become a man-hater. In contrast, feminism is about equality and freedom of choice. It is about human rights and it is about justice. If you believe in these then you are already a feminist, whether you are a man, woman or both (or neither).
A feminist conference is just one way to engage with these issues. I would argue that the easiest and most important step that we all can take is to shake off the stereotypes attached to feminism, and recognise not only its continuing relevance but the essential role it must play in the shaping of our society.