A review of the decade in UK feminism

March 31, 2010

When Labour entered parliament 13 years now, they coasted in on a wave of optimism, sound-tracked by D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. But when it comes to women, have things got better over the past decade or worse?

With all female shortlists leading to the most women MPs in the UK ever, doubling from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997, it was expected that the Labour government would bring about a revolution for women. Yet despite the surge in female MPs, female representation in the UK parliament is still only 19.4 %, lower than in Bulgaria (21.7 %).

It is clear that for women to effect real change in politics, a critical mass is needed, and less than a fifth just isn’t enough. For services to women Harriet Harman has become a modern day witch to be burnt at the stake. The day after she attacked The Sun’s record on women’s rights at the Labour party conference in October last year, the same newspaper featured a topless model called ‘Harriet’ from Peckham, Harman’s constituency, giving her views on employment. Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that Labour wins for women have been slight and a frustratingly long time coming. In 1997 women hoped for so much, but so few of our dreams have been fulfilled.

If the Eighties are seen as the decade of the power suit, the Noughties could be seen as the decade of the high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuit. In 2003 Sian Heard and Sian Fellows won £7m between them after a partner at City law firm Sinclair, Roche and Temperley told them ‘The firm should sack you all and get in some better-looking recruits rather than you old bags.’ In 2005 1,600 women who worked for Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumbria hospital won between £35,000 and £200,000 each, in a case of fair pay for comparative work.

But despite these victories little seems to have changed. Women working full time still earn on average 17 % less than men per hour, either through being paid less to do the same job, or because jobs seen as traditionally female are devalued.

When it comes to work and children, women still find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Fawcett Society estimates that 30,000 women a year lose their jobs in the UK by becoming pregnant, and Labour have recently backtracked on their pledge to extend paid maternity leave to year. Instead men will have the right to take three months of paid paternity leave in the second six months of their child’s life, but only if the mother returns to work. There is little shift to accommodate flexible working hours and job sharing, so that women, who often do the majority of childcare, lose out again by being forced to downgrade their jobs to poorer paying part time work.

London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march 2008
London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march, 2008

The government’s Equality Bill is pending, but this does little other than unify and simplify existing employment law into one act. There is a ‘duty’ on large companies to publish pay disparities between the men and women they employ, but no legal compulsion, and no extension to all UK businesses. What seems patently clear is that in order to achieve equal pay we need a legal compulsion for every company to publish the salaries of all their employees by gender annually. As long as women occupy such a fragile space in the workplace they will not feel safe to speak out on issues of sexual harassment, flexible working hours and jobs sharing, and so the culture of misogynist workplaces will continue.

Women are just about holding on to our right to a safe, legal abortion in this country, but despite decades of campaigning and favourable public opinion, there has been no move to remove the need to get the signature of two doctors, nor have women in Northern Ireland gained the right to free, legal abortions in their country.

Labour came to power with a clear manifesto to embrace the free market, committed to doing whatever it took to allow businesses, and by extension, the UK economy to prosper. Like rules on 24 hour drinking, the 2003 Licensing Act swept away much bureaucracy and red tape for business. But crucially for women this meant lap dancing clubs could now be licensed in the same way as cafes, so that since 2004 clubs have doubled to over 300 in the UK.

Labour’s move to the right and 1997 election came at a cost to its traditional voters. Broadly speaking the Labour government as a whole has let down those women who need the most help and support – particularly low-income single mothers and female asylum seekers, this is a cost of being in the pocket of big business and striving to please the middle classes.

Benefits for lone parents were slashed in 1997 and last year Labour changed the law so that all lone parents have to come off income support by the time their youngest child is seven, where previously it was 12. Labour’s recent pre-election pledge to place all teenage mothers in a ‘network of supervised homes’ has been compared to Victorian reformatories and penitentiaries for fallen women.

The idea behind all government policy in single-parenting is that ‘work is the best way out of poverty’ which is fantasy and contrary to the latest research. A 2007 report by the OECD found that Britain has the worst benefits trap for women. A single mother re-entering employment has to forfeit 101.3 per cent of her wages through extra tax, childcare costs, and relinquished benefits payouts. Jean Phillipe Cotis, the OECD’s chief economist stated: ‘Quite simply, it’s not really rewarding to re-enter the workforce if you are either a lone parent or a second earner. We are basically forbidding a lot of women from going back into work.’

Labour’s record on female asylum seekers is similarly bad. Currently women asylum seekers who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country cannot access many of the things other women take for granted, such as free healthcare when pregnant and maternity benefits, and crucially for a group so at risk of domestic violence they cannot seek refuge in a women’s aid shelter because the spaces are government funded for UK residents only. The UK is letting down the very women who are the most in need of our help – those who have suffered and are at risk of rape, domestic violence, so-called honour killings and female genital mutilation, which is a shameful situation.

When faced with the effects of legislation of the last three Labour governments, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that their interpretation of liberalism and libertarianism has been bad for those who are oppressed or belong to a minority. Ditto, when it comes to the biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, which is of course the internet; is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred? The biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, is of course the internet. But is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred?

For feminists, the internet has provided a brilliant means of organising, communicating and gathering for action, through email, e-groups and social networking sites. Free publishing with unlimited space has allowed feminist expression to flourish through blogs and alternative news and comment sites such as feministing in America and The F Word in the UK.

And yet, the anonymity of the internet has created a free frontier which is largely misogynistic. Far from being a haven for minorities, the internet, in many spaces, is a world where bigotry is exaggerated, not diminished. You only have to look at Comment is Free, the user interactive sphere of the Guardian to see that the internet is largely the empire of the white, middle class, English-speaking male.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to pornography, and the facts are not cheering. 25 % of all internet searches are porn related. The porn industry generates approximately £30bn worldwide; double that of the mainstream film industry. Mainstream porn video production has increased exponentially in the past ten years; it’s pervasive output increasingly extreme and violent, showing women being harmed, degraded and humiliated both verbally and physically. A quick Google search reveals that mainstream porn is no longer a video of reader’s wives or a naked Playboy centrefold. Acts previously seen as extreme, such as multiple penetration and ass-to-mouth penetration are now rarely exempt from mainstream porn, much of it available for free.

Amidst this increased acceptance of sexualised violence towards women, perceptions among the general public, and therefore by extension juries, are still that women are somehow responsible for rape and sexual violence. Studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to report decreased empathy for rape victims, believe that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be raped, experience anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex, report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives and report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts.

This gradual liberalisation has led to the acceptance of the “pornification” of women generally – in music videos, on billboard advertising and in mainstream films. American journalist, Ariel Levy, documented the phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, but unrestrained by America’s religious right “family values” brigade, the UK has this wall-to-wall objectification of women can be seen to greatest effect on our streets and in our shops.

The Nineties gave birth to Laddism and a new genre of publication – the lads mag. 20 years after Clare Short published a collection of letters from constituents imploring her to do something about Page 3, one page in a daily newspaper has mutated into two weekly magazines full of such images, largely purchased by teenage boys. Nuts and Zoo, displayed at toddler eye-level in most family supermarkets, include campaigns such as a competition for male readers to win breast implants for their girlfriends.

Object Feminist Friday, January 2010
Object Feminist Friday, January 2010

Pornography is distorting the sexualities of young people experiencing sex for the first time. Girls are coming under increased pressure to wax their pubic hair off entirely, have their faces ejaculated on and take part in ever more extreme acts. It’s unsurprising then that there has been an explosion in women seeking cosmetic surgery and women with eating disorders and other self-esteem related issues.

This misogyny has become so mainstream that women are increasingly perpetuating misogyny against themselves. Nowhere is this compulsion for women to view each other as enemies, to divide and conquer, stronger than in the new celebrity landscape of gossip magazines and websites. No part of a woman’s body, personality or personal life is safe from criticism, and women are encouraged to develop hatred and self-disgust of themselves and other women.

In wider society, despite the joyous outpouring of the Riot Grrrl movement, white, privileged, male culture presides. In the UK most heads of public arts institutions are men, yet the industry is disproportionately female. Of the top 16 theatres in the UK, only four have a female artistic director and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first original play by a female playwright was shown on the National Theatre’s main stage. Less than 10 % of UK film directors are women, the National Gallery only owns ten paintings by women and women artists make up just 13 % of the Tate’s collection. Women are grossly underrepresented in parliament, the judiciary and the boardroom. Just four financial directors of FTSE 100 companies are women.

But if progress for women has been poor on issues of pay and equality, when it comes to male violence against women the feminist activists of the Seventies must be horrified. Amidst a dropping crime rate for most offences such as burglary, murder and muggings, the British Crime Survey 2009 showed a 5 % increase in reported rapes. In the 1970s there were rape conviction rates of up to 32 % in the UK, now it stands at a low of just 6 %. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, yet this pandemic of male violence against women goes largely unreported in the media.

There are massive shortcomings in the police treatment of and failure to prioritise cases of violence against women and sexual assault. Earlier this year the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that a Detective Constable in charge of the Worboys attacks did not believe a woman who had been raped because he had ‘formed a mindset that a black cab driver would not commit such an offence.’ Given these shortcomings is it any wonder that the police are often accused of institutional sexism?

Compounding the situation is the crisis in rape crisis funding – ten years ago there were 80 rape crisis centres in the UK, that has now more than halved to just 39 and many are struggling to keep their doors open through lack of central and local government funding.

In contrast while men are getting away with murder and have impunity from rape, statistics released in November last year revealed that in the past decade the number of women in prison has increased by more than 50 % – hitting a record 8,862 in 2008. The Daily Mirror reported that ‘More than two thirds were jailed for non-violent offences, despite guidelines that it be used only for serious crimes.’

So as the decade closes we are faced with a depressing prospect. We have achieved precisely none of the seven original demands of the women’s liberation movement outlined at the Birmingham conference in 1978. Attacked, harassed and under siege from male violence, it is little wonder that women are finding it hard to speak out. But a growing movement is doing just that.

Object on the Million Women Rise March 2009
Object on the Million Women Rise march, 2009

Earlier this month thousands of women took to the streets of London for Million Women Rise – a march calling for an end to male violence against women. Every November thousands of women march to end male violence against women on Reclaim the Night marches across the UK. A key supporter is the campaigning group Object, a canny mixture of grass-roots activism and political lobbying is leading to real legislative change.

If the Noughties were a decade of feminist resurgence, then the last year of that decade, 2009, could be seen as feminism’s big year out. Despite the many obstacles facing them Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Fiona Mactaggart presided over three key pieces of legislation, which will be seen as Labour’s legacy for women.

Following a two-year consultation, Labour launched its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, which included among other things provision for classes on domestic violence as part of the national curriculum. Harman also announced a drop in domestic violence incidents by 64 % in July 2009 as well as an increase in convictions by 25 %, but Women’s Aid dispute the way this data is gathered and suggest a far higher incidence of unreported cases.

By far the most significant win for women for many years, has been a small clause in the Policing and Crime Bill (2008-9) lobbied for by Object and Eaves. For the first time ever, the law is moving away from criminalising prostituted women and towards criminalising those who pay to abuse them. Clause 14 of the Crime and Policing Bill states that those who use women who are controlled for gain, through trafficking, drug addiction or any other form of coercion, will be prosecuted, whether they knew about the coercion or not. It’s a tiny step on the way to criminalising all those who abuse prostituted women and offering funding for safe exit strategies, rehabilitation and housing, as enacted in Sweden and Norway, but those who have been campaigning on this issue for years know what a significant step this is in changing the cultural mindset towards prostituted women.

Object also fought a two-year campaign to stop the proliferation of lap dancing clubs. The stripping the illusion campaign, in association with Fawcett Society, successfully pushed through legislation to ensure that lap dancing clubs are now licensed as ’sex encounter establishments’ like sex shops and cinemas, rather than in the same way as cafes.

Another 2009 success was the overturning of the provocation defence. This defence has traditionally been used in murder cases by men who have killed their female partner and successfully downgraded a charge of murder to manslaughter by arguing that their violence was not premeditated, but a crime of ‘passion’ as a result of a woman asking for a divorce, revealing an affair or even nagging.

Frustratingly, just as Labour seems to be taking some tiny steps which could be built upon to achieve something really momentous, it looks like things will regress with the imminent arrival of a Conservative government. Amidst huge resistance to the final introduction of Conservative party all-female shortlists, just one female member of the Conservative shadow cabinet (Teresa May) and many stridently anti-feminist Conservative female MPs, it looks like the feminist fight is about to get harder.

If the Eighties were a decade of backlash against the feminist achievements of the Seventies, then the Nineties can be seen as the decade of ‘fake feminism’ with lies such as ‘we’ve never had it so good’ and ‘women are having it all’ trotted out to placate women. In the wake of Thatcherism we had the ugly and damaging twin evils of ‘ladette’ culture and ‘girl power’. Noughties feminism saw those consumerist male led moments for what they were. Women are organising and demonstrating on a scale unheard of ten years ago and it’s clear that there is a growing surge of feminist activism and female anger.

So here’s to the Noughties – a decade of growth and gathering for feminism. A decade that thanks to the proliferation of porn, has increased our challenges and made our battle harder. Our victories may seem slight, but there’s no doubt that change is a coming.

This piece first appeared on TMP online.

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