The T&S archive makes clear that fat was a feminist issue in the 1980s and 1990s, and that issue hasn’t gone away; on the contrary, the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ of the 21st century has prompted a new wave of moral panic and some worrying new forms of fat oppression. In Slim Pickings Debbie Cameron asks how feminists have responded to these developments, and argues that we need to get more radical.
After reading that the BBC had chosen a panda as one of its women of the year in 2011, and that half the actual women on its list were notable only for marrying or shagging powerful men, I thought T&S could do better. So, to start the ball rolling, here’s my own roll-call of the year’s most memorable women:
World politics: the women activists of the Arab revolutions (and not only those whose names we’ve learned because they speak/write/blog/tweet in English).
National politics: Angela Merkel. The Eurozone crisis might not have been her finest hour, but she still advanced the cause of women political leaders by being so much less appalling than Berlusconi, Cameron, Sarkozy et al.
Local politics: Pauline Pearce, the woman who took issue with some rioters in Hackney. She talked more sense in a few minutes than politicians and pundits managed in hours of heated debate and pointless waffle.
Feminist campaigners: Tristane Banon, the French woman who told the world that Dominique Straus-Kahn had form even before he was accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel chambermaid; also
Tanya Rosenblit, who challenged the growing religious pressure for sex-segregation in Israel by refusing to sit at the back of the bus; and
Laura Nelson, who got Hamley’s toy shop in London to organize their toys by category rather than by gender (she also inspired a columnist for an Irish Sunday newspaper to rant under the immortal headline ‘SEXIST MY ARSE’).
Media personalities: Sue Perkins. How many women on the telly are equally at home presenting a baking competition, conducting a brass band and displaying their wit and erudition on QI? And how many of them are lesbians?
Light entertainment/satire: Princess Beatrice. Who knows if it was deliberate, but she made the royal wedding look even more ridiculous by wearing a giant pretzel on her head.
The mighty fallen: Rebekah Brooks—not that I’m applauding her, but she’s a rare case of a powerful woman being brought down for sins of some actual moral consequence, and not just because of sexism and double standards. The cardinal points of her wonky moral compass went beyond the usual female repertoire (‘slag, adulterer, gold-digger, bad mother’).
The late lamented: Cesaria Evora, singer; Amy Winehouse, singer; Christa Wolf, novelist.
And finally…IMHO, the female animal of the year (not to be confused with a woman) is not Tian Tian the panda, but the nameless polar bear who was judged too dangerous to film for Frozen Planet, thus sparking a row about reality and fiction in nature programmes.
Note to the BBC: I’ve managed to find enough human women to list without even touching on art, business, science or sport… Feel free to add your own nominations, sisters, and may 2012 bring joy to one and all
Diana Leonard, one of the founders of Trouble & Strife magazine, died on 27 November; her funeral takes place in London today. Di was a member of the magazine’s original editorial collective, who also wrote for it (her work appears in the T&S Reader which was published last year) and supported it actively throughout its 20-year life as a printed publication. Her friend and former colleague Miriam David (also a one-time contributor to T&S) has written an obituary which reminds us how much Di contributed to feminism both as an activist and an academic. She will be greatly missed.
Last week BBC 2’s Friday night Review Show was entirely devoted to debating feminism: what was it, what did it achieve, is it dead and if so whose fault is that, you know the sort of thing. Doubtless we’ll be getting a lot more of this stuff in the media as we approach the 40th anniversary of the first British WLM conference, held at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1970. If this Review Show is a sign of things to come, I’m not sure how much more ‘celebration’ I can take.
The first rule of any media debate on feminism is that the participants should all be media celebrities and general-purpose pundits, with a maximum of one of them having any actual experience of or commitment to feminist politics. If there are three or more people on the panel then one should be male, and at least one (who may but need not be the token man) should hold provocatively anti-feminist views. On the Review Show the feminist slot was filled by Germaine Greer, the male/anti-feminist slot by Toby Young, and the other two guests were Rachel Johnson (editor of The Lady) and Zoe Margolis (who writes about sex from a female perspective). They reviewed Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (billed as a ‘feminist’ novel about the sexual/gender revolution, though the reviewers were sensibly not convinced), and a series of BBC 4 documentaries on women which will be shown during March (the clip they showed contained the astonishing revelation that men who describe their marital relationships as equal still don’t clean the bath).
The good news is that neither Rachel Johnson nor Zoe Margolis provided quite what one imagines the producers hoped they would (respectively a conservative and a sexual libertarian view). Zoe Margolis particularly impressed me by describing Martin Amis as ‘condescending’ and slapping down Toby Young when he suggested that since she wrote about sex, she must be in favour of promiscuity and porn. The not so good news is that the only person to offer any properly thought-out political analysis of anything was Germaine Greer. Actually, she was great. But her ability to make cogent arguments while her juniors floundered was slightly depressing: feminism, though not yet dead, appears to be travelling on a senior citizen’s bus pass.
Or maybe not. The only actual example of contemporary feminism with which this programme concerned itself was Natasha Walter’s book. And Natasha Walter’s book represents, among other things, a shift on the author’s part towards a more radical sexual politics than she espoused in her first book The New Feminism. Walter now believes that the liberal agenda she favoured in the past didn’t address some of the more unpalatable and less tractable aspects of unequal gender relations, like the sexual objectification and exploitation of women which is in many ways more intense now than it was 20 or indeed 40 years ago. Once the poster-girl for ‘the new feminism’, Walter is now saying things that sound a lot more like the old feminism; perhaps there is life in the old lady yet.
The less radical TV reviewers didn’t care for this thought. They found Living Dolls too bleak, too preachy or too man-hating. Two of them also dismissed Natasha Walter as a middle class snob expressing high-minded distaste for the culture of working class women—as if Nuts and Spearmint Rhino were (a) as authentically proletarian as whippet-racing and brass bands, and (b) part of the culture of women of any group.
The programme was, all in all, a sort of Cook’s Tour of all the stupid, lazy, uninformed things you can say about feminism in 2010. As we get closer to British second-wave feminism’s 40th the tenor of the media coverage is something worth keeping an eye on: I hope other users of this site will contribute to this ‘media watch’.
A couple of weeks ago at the university where I teach, I spoke at an event organized by socialist students to debate the future of women’s liberation. One woman in the audience said afterwards that it was a relief to hear something political about women. Recently she had gone to another talk which she thought was going to be about feminism, and found it was actually a pitch for the Women’s Institute.
My reaction was much the same as hers had been—incredulity. Why on earth would 18-21 year-old students be interested in joining the Women’s Institute? But a few days later I read a newspaper report which claimed that women students all over the country are setting up branches of the WI. Or at least, they are trying to. According to the report, some of them are running into difficulty because many students’ unions refuse, on grounds of gender equity, to recognize societies which do not allow both sexes to be members. And so it has come to pass that an organization founded during World War I, and long associated with a very traditional view of women’s role, now finds itself in the vanguard of a movement to reclaim women-only space on university campuses. What is a radical feminist supposed to think?
I have my own, not very positive, memories of the WI. In the early 1980s when I belonged to a rape crisis group, I sometimes gave talks to local women’s organizations like the WI, the Townswomen’s Guild and the Housewives’ Register. Invariably the WI women were the most conservative. They tended to be very keen on the law and order aspect—locking rapists up and throwing away the key—but what they understood by ‘rapists’ was monsters leaping out of the bushes to attack some innocent maiden on her way home from church. And it was always a bit surreal giving a talk about rape which was preceded by announcements about jam-making sessions and followed by a competition for the prettiest scarf or the most effective spring flower arrangement.
But it seems the WI has moved on. Today, the causes it supports include not only fairly uncontroversial ones like Fairtrade, and women’s development projects overseas, but also less comfortable things like the Campaign to End Violence Against Women.
If press stories are anything to go by, such political concerns are not high on the agenda for the new campus WI branches. Their reported activities have included tea-drinking, cake-baking and (allegedly) knitting iPod covers. But as retrograde as this might appear, I think there is something behind it that feminists would recognize and support.
To get to the ‘future of women’s liberation’ event, I had to fight my way through a college bar full of braying young men in what appeared to be fancy dress (they wore flat caps, plus fours and patterned socks, and some of them were carrying leather whips). On inquiring who they were, I was told that they were known as ‘hunters’, and that one of their recent exploits had been to organize a ‘hunt’ in which female ‘foxes’ were chased by male ‘hounds’. When one woman complained that this sort of thing was all too common, and that the students’ union had ‘a completely sexualized entertainments policy’, it was clear that her words struck a chord.
Women students today inhabit a culture where sexual objectification and predatory male behaviour are normalized, and it seems that quite a lot of them are angry about that. At the same time, they are reluctant to be labelled ‘feminists’ because of the social disapproval that would incur among their peers. If the WI provides such women with an alternative—an acceptable way to spend time with other women, and potentially a space in which to explore their feelings about the way women are treated elsewhere—then on balance I think I’m for it.