Why did the feminist revolution stall, and how do we get it back on track? Those questions are at the heart of Beatrix Campbell’s new book End of Equality. Marina S thinks it’s a timely intervention which should enrage and inspire us all.
Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull Books, 2014)
We live in a liberal age. I mean the term in its technical sense: rule of law, individual rights, social contract, John Stuart Mill, the lot. And one of the founding beliefs of liberalism is the progressive paradigm: that the world naturally tends towards more equal and just conditions on a liberal progression towards ultimate equality.
The danger of such a belief is that it could lead to quietism—a passive expectation that the liberal hereafter will arrive on its own and with no need for active political striving on our part. Arguably, this liberal quietism is where feminism was for the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, and is the key characteristic of the so-called third wave. Against the background of an inexorable march towards liberation, political engagement was unnecessary; a retreat to the individual and a critical gaze turned inwards were the logical next steps. Liberation became personal: a state of mind, a stance of being a liberated or empowered women. The material reality will take care of itself; the wage gap will gradually narrow, political representation will gradually increase, the glass ceiling will gradually dissolve, male violence will gradually decrease.
Well, none of these things has happened. Progress on all equality measures – and many others such as division of labour in the home, civil liberties for women across the Global South and so on – has either stalled or gone into reverse. The first half of Bea Campbell’s new book End of Equality sketches in devastating detail just how stuck the progressive agenda is: the wage gap has been the same for years; men have added just one minute a year to their share of housework; male violence against women is static and unchanging on any measure – against a backdrop of dramatic and prolonged drops in other forms of violent crime – except in Asia where it is devastatingly on the increase in the form of female feticide and dowry murders.
As is often the case with the best of feminist writing, this slim volume makes clear something which has been stubbornly inexplicable: what went wrong for the feminist movement? Why was our revolution unfinished? How could we have failed so badly (we think) when seemingly so close to achieving our goals? Two generations of feminists have wrestled with these questions, quite often wrestling with each other in the process. Recrimination and antagonism was bred from a frustrating failure of the liberal paradigm to explain the backlash of the 80s and beyond. If history always marches towards greater equality, and we are not seeing that equality manifest for women, then the fault, the thinking goes, must be in us: we have failed to be inclusive; we have failed to understand race; we have failed to take the correct attitudes to sexuality, marriage, domestic labour, sex work.
In contrast to this soul-searching, Campbell locates the seeming retreat of feminism in a squarely material framework. The reassertion of capital’s power after its brief post-World War II retreat rolled back or arrested not only feminist politics, but the civil rights movement, the student rebellions and other political liberation movements that were active in the 60s and early 70s. What she terms the ‘neo-patriarchal’ paradigm congealed around and in support of the neoliberal economic and political turn in global affairs in the last third of the 20th century. Not just Britain and the US, but countries as politically diverse as China and India went through processes of ‘liberalisation’ beginning in the 70s, and the impact of these changes on women has often been profoundly regressive.
In China in particular, the retrenchment of government support for childcare, healthcare and retirement has resulted in what Campbell calls the greatest redistribution in history – from women to men. But that redistribution is present elsewhere: here in the UK, Parliament’s own research has shown that 72% of the current government’s budget cuts were taken from women’s pockets. Women financed the bank bailout; women carry the cost – in money and labour – of the retrenching welfare state. And the load is getting greater: research shows that, contrary to expectations, women do much more hours of childcare now than they did in the halcyon days of the patriarchal fifties.
We are being deliberately squeezed at home and abroad, and in many countries (Campbell concentrates on Japan and Korea, but this is the case in Italy and other European countries as well) women are responding by withdrawing their labour. Literally. Birth rates in many advanced economies are significantly below replacement rates and the looming crisis of elderly care is enormous – and likely to play out almost entirely at the expense of women. Paid less for doing the same jobs and, crucially, taking on the majority of severely underpaid part time work, women’s pensions are on average half those of men upon retirement.
It is refreshing to read a book that places the blame for the ‘unfinished revolution’ somewhere other than the revolutionaries. Apart from anything else, there is something deeply intellectually unsatisfying about the notion that with the election of Margaret Thatcher, feminists just kind of stopped; that the second wavers became gullible and immediately bought into the radical individualism of the Me Decade (they didn’t – their daughters and granddaughters did), or that they suddenly lost a weight of power and influence they had previously possessed. The latter in particular is nonsense. Feminists have never run a single government, dominated a single board, been the majority of any judiciary. To conceive of backlash politics as a retreat of feminist influence – or even as a kind of counter revolutionary reaction from a conservative groundswell – is to ignore the wider political context and to pretend that, in the favourite atomistic idiom of neoliberalism, social movements and liberation politics happen as discrete events with no contextual relationship to the wider socio-political environment. In the final analysis, this breathtakingly infuriating book simply makes sense – and helps us make sense of what the next move of feminist politics can and should be.
A call to arms
Bea Campbell may not thank me for saying this, but this is a book for the Twitter age: terse but perfectly formed sentences tumble over each other in breathless rapidity, making one want to reach for one’s phone at a rate of three times per page. It’s also a book crammed full of facts – enraging facts, sad facts, alarming facts, frustrating facts. But the bleak blandness of exhaustively referenced numbers is borne along on a stream of beautiful, heart-swelling prose.
The biggest philosophical difference between neoliberal, patriarchal politics and feminism is that the former is profoundly pessimistic. Human nature in the neoliberal reading is base, selfish, violent and grasping – and incapable of reform. All radical politics is embedded in a confidence that people will strive to cooperate, coexist and care for each other if the material conditions they find themselves in don’t militate against it.
It is no coincidence, in this view, that we live in an age of war without end; an unintelligible series of local skirmishes and conflicts in which women, and the cooperative, relational social capital they nurture, are often the hardest hit, not as accidental ‘collateral damage’ but through deliberate acts of mass rape and disenfranchisement that hit purposefully at the heart of social existence. Violations of human rights, in Campbell’s phrase, ‘are not side effects, but a decisive methodology’. Feminism’s project, in her view, is to bear witness to the ‘wit and heroism that makes up everyday life amid chronic violence’.
This is a hard picture of the world to face up to, to take responsibility for; but it is also a call to arms. In calling for a new revolution, Bea Campbell arms us would-be revolutionaries with an explanatory framework and a set of milestones to strive towards in order to achieve the fundamentally optimistic, life-loving aims of a world free of degradation and destruction. So by all means, let’s live-tweet this book. Let’s send all of it out there into the world to enrage and inspire us all. Now is the right time, and we are the right people. I’ll end with a quote from Campbell herself:
Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff – our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather that wreck and waste. This is women’s liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.
Marina S blogs at It’s Not a Zero Sum Game. Find her on Twitter at @marstrina
See Beatrix Campbell talking about End of Equality here