Book review

How have we come to this? 1

Yasmin Rehman reviews Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror

The sociologist and theorist Christine Delphy has been one of the most influential figures in French feminism since the 1970s, when she was active in the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), and co-founded the journal Nouvelles questions féministes with Simone de Beauvoir. Separate and Dominate is a collection of ten essays which she began writing in 1996. Originally published in French in 2008, this is the first English translation, and it contains an opening chapter written specifically for this volume.

I read the book in the midst of the fierce social media debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo cartoon featuring Aylan Kurdi, in which those who criticised the satirical magazine for using an image of the dead toddler were accused of failing to understand satire and/or the French.[1]  I was aware that my own lack of inside knowledge might affect my understanding: Delphy makes repeated reference to details of French governance, political controversies and pieces of legislation with which I am unfamiliar. But the issues and arguments raised by the book—terrorism, racism and imperialism, identity—are relevant and timely for British readers too.

I’ve taken the title of my review from a question Christine Delphy herself asks (p.65), though it has also been asked by politicians and policy-makers, academics, community activists, faith leaders and others in different parts of the world. With each terror attack in the West and each new report of Western-born Muslims and/or converts travelling to join Daesh (ISIS), the inevitable question is: how have we come to this?

Delphy’s aim, which she sets out in the opening sentences of the book, is ‘to elaborate a materialist approach to not only oppression and marginalization, but also domination and normality’ (p.1). She explores the way social divisions and hierarchies are constructed, and focuses on ‘the oppression of women, of non-whites and of gays’, which ‘divide the whole of society into two categories, two camps …. the Ones and the Others’. Domination relies on classification and separation in order to exert and retain power. Her objective is to demonstrate that hatred of the Other is not a natural, human trait but is socially constructed through concrete material practices, including ideological and discursive ones. She is interested in the way dominance operates and is imposed by the Ones, contrasting this with the ‘psychic suffering’ of the Others.

This juxtaposition of the dominant and the dominated is thought-provoking and challenging, but there are problems with Delphy’s binary opposition. It ignores the diversity that exists within both groups, and particularly among the ‘Others’.

Delphy suggests that Muslims in France are a homogenous group originating from former French colonies. She does not make reference to minorities within oppressed groups, or acknowledge differing cultural traditions (the Pew Forum estimates that there are 4.7 million Muslims in France, and whilst most hail from North Africa, there are also hundreds of thousands from the Indian sub-continent, Turkey and elsewhere bringing with them their own diverse experiences of Islam). She also fails to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamism. She does not discuss Islamism as a political movement which has spread through communities across the world, nor the opposition to Islamism that exists within the same communities. As Karima Bennoune observes, we rarely hear ‘the perspectives of secular people of Muslim heritage concerned with both rising fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims’.

In Britain since the ‘Rushdie affair’ in 1989 (when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses), there has been a shift away from identity categories based on racial, ethnic or national affiliation, and towards identities based on religious faith. South Asian communities in particular are now divided and identified along religious lines, and there has been a growing demand for more sensitivity to religious values, especially in the light of growing anti-Muslim racism. However, framing a feminist political response to these demands requires us, as Pragna Patel points out, to consider who defines ‘religious values’ and for what purpose.  Although Delphy discusses the war on terror and its impact on Muslims living in the West, she glosses over the conservative, fundamentalist forces which may be at work within these same Muslim minority communities.

To veil or not to veil

Very few issues attract as much attention or public discussion as the niqab or face veil. Is it a symbol of oppression or of minority women asserting their religious identity? In 2004, when France became the first country in Europe to introduce legislation banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, the law was initially presented as a matter of laïcité (state secularism) and what it means to be French. This ban in schools was later extended to wearing of the hijab in public spaces in 2007. It was followed by a ban on face coverings in 2011 based on security concerns. Delphy puts these events in the context of increasing anti-Muslim racism and growing support for the far right in France. She argues that banning the veil will further marginalise and isolate the very women and girls the State says it wishes to protect.

Other feminists take an opposing view. Marième Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian living in France, argues that

When talking of veils in schools, one automatically refers to the veiling of under-aged girls, i.e. not the veiling of women. The question thus becomes: who is to decide on girls’ veiling—themselves or the adults who are in charge of them? And which adults? This point requires special consideration given the new trend to veil girls as young as 5 as shown in the numerous campaigns going on now throughout North Africa.

Hélie-Lucas locates the debate about the hijab/niqab within a context that once applied to FGM and forced marriage. She asks, who is the adult in charge of protecting the girl-child’s rights? The state already plays this role when it prevents families from performing FGM on girls, or subjecting them to forced marriages. Why should it not also take responsibility for preventing the deep psychological damage induced by wearing a veil before adulthood? Why should the state be seen as authoritarian when it prevents the veiling of girls but not when it protects them from FGM? In the 1970s in Europe and North America there were many on the Left, as well as some feminists, who defended FGM as a ’cultural right’ and denounced efforts to eradicate the practice in Europe as ‘western imperialism’. At no point was any reference made to the struggles of women on the ground to eradicate FGM in parts of Africa. We see the same pattern replicated regarding the ‘right to veil’, which is now seen as a ‘religious right’ despite the fact that numerous progressive interpreters of the Qur’an have stated that it is not an Islamic injunction.

Delphy accuses feminists who support the ban of failing Muslim women by supporting racist laws. She also criticises organisations like Ni Putes Ni Soumises (‘neither whores nor submissive women’), which was established by Fadela Amara—an activist with roots in the anti-racist organization SOS Racisme—to break the silence about violence against Muslim women in French immigrant communities. She commends the group for challenging sexism but accuses it of supporting a racist agenda in order to secure government funds (p.154). This attack on minority women makes me deeply uncomfortable. Delphy fails to recognise the very real risks minority women face when they challenge violence against women and girls and the power structures within their communities. Why should the government not fund organisations to protect those at risk of violence and abuse?

The veil is only the latest example of men in minority communities using the imposition of traditional/religious dress codes to control women and girls. Many South Asian women and girls have spoken in the past about being forced to wear shalwar kameez in order to maintain modesty and conform to community norms. Over the years schools in many areas adjusted their uniform policy to allow the wearing of trousers for girls and/or shalwar kameez in school colours. This accommodation to community dress code demands later incorporated the hijab/ headscarf, but not the face veil.

In 2002 Shabina Begum, a young Muslim girl, took legal action against her school for refusing her permission to wear the jilbab (full ankle-length dress). She claimed that this breached her human right to manifest her religion, and also her right to an education, since she was barred from the school unless she complied with its uniform policy. In 2006 the House of Lords delivered a judgement stating that Shabina’s rights had not been violated, and that any infringement was necessary and proportionate for the protection and well-being of the wider school community. The judges stated that school’s uniform policy already took account of ‘mainstream’ Muslim opinion.

According to Pragna Patel, this decision reflected an understanding of the political context: Shabina’s challenge had been motivated by the desire of others to impose a politicized religious identity on women and girls at the school. Shabina was represented by her older brother, who appeared to be part of an extreme Muslim political group. The group had protested outside the school—not against the uniform policy, but against the education of Muslim children in secular schools.

However, some feminists, like Maleiha Malik, criticised the judgement for failing to recognise that Shabina was exercising her autonomy by wearing the jilbab in an environment where Muslims are constantly demonised and discriminated against. Like Delphy, Malik located the debate primarily in relation to the issue of anti-Muslim racism. But what both overlook is that for a woman to wear the veil is not necessarily an act of individual agency, but is profoundly shaped by political processes that involve the privileging of a religious identity over others.

This is not to deny that Muslim women may wear the veil by choice. Muslim women themselves have talked about wearing the hijab or niqab as a visible symbol of their religious identity, or to protect themselves from male attention and aggression. As Mona Eltahawy says in her book Headscarves and Hymens,  the act of wearing the hijab is far from simple. But let us not forget that some Muslim women face violence and abuse for daring to challenge community norms justified by so-called codes of honour. Both Eltahawy and Aliyah Saleem, an ex-Muslim and former student at an Islamic school, have written about their experiences of being forced to wear the hijab. Aliyah has recently produced a series of videos discussing the challenges she faced when she decided to remove her hijab.

The veil continues to be a source of challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts. There is a long tradition of Muslim academics and theologians offering feminist interpretations of Qur’anic verses including references to the veil. The late Fatima Mernissi, a leading Moroccan sociologist and feminist, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American scholar, and Amina Wadud are among the women who have argued that the Qur’an prescribes modesty, and not specifically veiling. Delphy, however, makes no reference to these arguments.

Racism, Identity and the War on Terror

Like the debate on the hijab, discussions of the ‘war on terror’ are polarised, with neither side moving towards the other. Are there only two positions? Must we either support the war on terror and recognise the Islamist threat, or else maintain that the war on terror is a war against Islam and an excuse to demonize Muslims?

It would appear that the French Left, like its British equivalent, views terrorism as the result of imperialist interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, or as a result of earlier injustices during the period of colonial rule. Yet the first of these arguments seems unconvincing in relation to France, which opposed the war in Iraq but has still seen terror unleashed on the streets of Paris. If we accept the argument that terrorism and violence are a response to the West’s attacks on Muslims, then as a strategy I would argue it has failed spectacularly. Every act of terrorism, from the bombings of American targets in the 1980s and 1990s to the recent killings in Paris and Brussels, has prompted increased military action by the West and its allies, resulting in further loss of Muslim lives. In the West it has led to increased surveillance of Muslims, fuelled the growth of anti-Muslim racism and promoted the rise of the far Right.

In the context of increasing anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination it is incredibly difficult to raise concerns about political Islamist movements, violations of human rights by Islamists or the oppression of Muslim women, without feeding an anti-Muslim discourse. In Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Right and Universal Human Rights, Meredith Tax asks:

When US diplomats invoke the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neo-colonialism? When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated those same jihadis or focus on violations by the State?

Conversely, how does one raise the points discussed by Delphy with regard to the war on terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo, and the denial of any discussion about the real or perceived causes for terrorism, without feeding the Islamist agenda and reinforcing the Muslim victim narrative?

In her discussion of Guantanamo Bay, Delphy is right to denounce the utter lack of due process and the incarceration of prisoners without charge, but I disagree with her claim that ‘their only crime is to be of Arab origin or Muslim faith’. The reality is more complex: it is possible to be both a victim of injustice and a supporter of terrorism. Delphy’s portrayal of French Muslims as passive victims of discrimination and prejudice—the Others dominated by the Ones—repeats the very same argument propagated by Islamists. It could be asked whether this helps to give credibility to the Islamist narrative—a narrative which is strongly contested in Muslim majority countries, as Karima Bennoune and others have shown.

Delphy identifies the centrality of racism to a construction of Muslim Others as backward, patriarchal and oppressive. That racism is fuelled on a daily basis by media portrayals of Muslims as oppressed women, rapists, terrorists, child abusers, illegal immigrants and benefits cheats. However, it is also unhelpful to deny that some people in Muslim communities do fall into those categories. To move forward, we need a more open and honest debate, including women and men, those of faith and of no faith, whites and non-whites, gay and straight people and all minority groups. We should heed the call to action with which Separate and Dominate ends:

We all need to revisit our way of thinking about the articulation and imbrication of patriarchy and racism, as well as the way we ‘do’ activism. The feminist movement cannot survive unless it becomes truly universal, taking all women, all their situations and all their revolts into account.


[1]  The cartoon shows Aylan Kurdi – the child whose picture, lying face down on a beach, highlighted the refugee crisis – with a message “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” The answer, “A groper of women in Germany.” Under the headline “Migrants”, the cartoon shows two men with their tongues out and arms outstretched running behind a woman. It clearly alludes to the recent incident in Cologne, Germany where mass sexual assaults were reported on New Year’s Eve, allegedly perpetrated by refugees.


Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror,  translated by David Broder, published by Verso Books, 2015.

Find Yasmin Rehman on Twitter @RehmanYasmin



Bringing up the body

Maddy Coy reviews Alison Phipps’s book The Politics of the Body, and finds it partial in both senses of the word

By Alison Phipps’s own account, her book The Politics of the Body sets out to ask ‘questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect how we conceptualise embodiment’. Each chapter picks out a particular issue, or set of issues, relating to this general theme: the topics examined are sexual violence, gender and Islam, the politics of the sex industry and the reproductive regimes of birth and breastfeeding.

On the plus side, it’s good to see a feminist book that’s critical of the way neoliberalism has normalised ‘the politics of personal responsibility’ and conferred feminist status on any choice a woman makes, regardless of the constraints of social structure. It’s good to see someone examining discourses and debates around women’s bodies, and drawing on academic research to support, or dispute, what have become normative frameworks at best and incontestable truths at their most divisive. But it’s disappointing and frustrating to see this much-needed analysis marred by blind spots, misunderstandings and a thorough, seemingly deliberate hatchet-job on radical feminism.

For me, the book’s best and most accessible chapter is the last one, on birth and breastfeeding – the ‘new reproductive regimes of truth’. How, Phipps asks, has the ‘natural’ become so idealised, often robbing women of medical, technological advances that have made modern motherhood less painful and frankly, more convenient? When practices of attachment parenting and ‘the breastfeeding mafia’ are both lauded and decried by the mainstream media, even to suggest that there might be a place for epidurals, caesareans and formula milk as means for women to reclaim and re-inhabit a maternal body is no small stake in the ground.

Not that this is necessarily Phipps’ aim: rather she presents a careful argument about how choosing a ‘normal’ birth and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of breastfeeding is inextricably linked to privilege. In ‘attempt[ing] to apply the principle of intersectionality’, she calls out the way campaigns, initiatives and organisations that promote less intervention and ‘normal’ birth have become yardsticks by which to judge, as ill-informed and selfish, the choices made by the working class and minority women who are more likely to opt for pain relief and formula feeding. She unpicks the gender essentialisms behind these maternalist ideals, and how they have pushed women’s bodily autonomy aside in favour of ‘prescribed practices’. Never mind that research shows most women experiencing some form of ‘birth trauma’ have had ‘normal’ deliveries, or the inconsistencies in the evidence base on the benefits of breastfeeding. She points out that ‘only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology’, thus making a structural link with the romanticisation of natural birth in many parts of the world where there is little or  no access to medical care. This, as she astutely observes, illustrates the ‘shift from rights to choices’.

Nor does the merchandising industry that has sprung up around managing labour pains, aiding ‘natural’ birth, breastfeeding and kangaroo care-style attachment parenting, escape her forensic gaze. How neat that a movement supposedly empowering women to do what comes naturally requires relentless consumerism! Here Phipps identifies the way feminist goals have been co-opted by a neoliberal fetishization of personal responsibility. It’s the kind of incisive analysis many feminists will have been hoping for.

The chapter on sexual violence also starts promisingly, with a critical account of the controversies that swirl around Julian Assange, his refusal to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and the similar defences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski. The lefties who vocally supported Assange are painstakingly exposed. That powerful men have been allowed to abuse women with impunity has perhaps never been so publicly evident than at present, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the arrests of various celebrities. Phipps shows that responses to Strauss-Kahn, Polanski and Assange were similarly revealing, and she distils these cases to explore ‘rape apologism’.

However, I am less than convinced by her argument that a central problem on the left is ‘an assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny’—not because I doubt that this assumption exists, but because it elides sexual violence with men’s hatred of women rather than their abuse of power. Some left-wing men might well be misogynists, but as feminists have long known, they can also be capable of abusing gendered power in ways that jar with their awareness of classed power. In this chapter on sexual violence (and the politics of victimhood), men’s entitlement to women’s bodies is discussed only once, with reference to Adrienne Rich, when surely it is central to any understanding of how all of these men were variously excused and idealised. Nor is there any reference here to the huge body of feminist work (much of it radical feminist) which relates to the debate on victimhood. It was after all Kathleen Barry who introduced the concept of ‘victimism’ in 1979 in her book Female Sexual Slavery.

Phipps does explore how the women abused by these men were interrogated by the media and found wanting, and links this insightfully to the way choice, agency and personal responsibility have come to dominate understandings of human behaviour. Yet her passing concern at how little attention is paid to the choices and agency of perpetrators is mirrored by the chapter itself. The argument here that only women’s choices have been ‘responsibilised’, especially with respect to sexual violence, leaves an echoing silence about men’s actions. The chapter ends with an ambivalent account of the controversy surrounding ‘Slutwalks’, celebrated as an initiative that rejects victim-blame and personal responsibility, but criticised at least in part because of concerns voiced by Black women about the racialisation of the term slut.

In the end, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity – a set of expectations raised and dashed, not least because of the sledge-hammer approach to radical feminism, which is repeatedly accused of an unholy alliance with neoconservative moralism, and used as the scapegoat for the deep suspicion with which left wing movements now regard victimhood.

Radical feminism: an enemy within?

In a book where every assertion is meticulously referenced, a strange and telling absence is the total lack of any reference to sources when repeating the assertion that radical feminism has embraced a ‘neoconservative gender essentialism’. So striking is this absence that it comes to define the author’s point of view. The refrain that there is a ‘convergence of radical feminism with neoconservative and neo-conservative law and order agendas’ is sprinkled throughout the entire text, sometimes on almost every page. In a couple of places ‘trafficking’ is invoked as an example of this alliance, but with no specific examples (of campaigns, support services or research) which might substantiate the point. In a book of this scope and potential, containing a thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are defined and understood, it’s a pity Phipps fails to offer readers even the most basic definition of a strand of feminism that she repeatedly vilifies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this omission is deliberate, for fear of giving radical feminist politics any intellectual legitimacy. Instead she reinforces every stereotype and myth (I’m sure you can reel them off without too much thought) in ways which ultimately diminish the intellectual integrity of her own position.

Taken at its most basic, radical feminism identifies men’s privilege over women as the root of women’s inequality, exercised particularly through entitlement to women’s bodies, and thus many activists on violence against women and girls trace the way we understand violence back to radical feminism. Many of the issues she engages with in the book – sexual violence, prostitution, crimes in the name of honour – owe their public profile to these very activists and the framings they use.

This is not to question the legitimacy of critiquing any political position, or the need to challenge the ways in which intersections with race and class have been less prominent than they should have been in some aspects of radical feminist theory and practice. But there is a disconnection throughout this book from the grassroots feminists who work on violence against women and girls. At times this is more of a shadow cast by the now familiar refrain about radical feminists jumping into bed with neocons, but it is also explicitly articulated, nowhere more obviously than in the chapter on gender and Islam.

For instance, Phipps insists on using the term ‘female genital cutting’ (linking the word ‘mutilation’ to an ‘Orientalist framework’) and when she uses the full term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), she adds ‘[sic]’ to distance herself from it. There are interesting and legitimate debates about the meanings of the word mutilation, and particularly what it means for women who have undergone this form of violence to be labelled ‘mutilated’. Some use the term FGM/C to denote the complexities of finding language that does not alienate whilst also naming and defining. I would have welcomed discussion of this. But five seconds on the Internet would have told Phipps that many of the grassroots women’s organisations who specialise in campaigning against FGM (e.g. FORWARD, Daughters of Eve), led by women from practising communities who identify as survivors, use the term ‘mutilation’. This links the procedure to other forms of violence against women and girls. By insisting on using the term ‘cutting’ instead of ‘FGM’, Phipps manages at one stroke to decouple FGM from VAWG, placing herself at odds with international human rights approaches, and inadvertently slipping into both cultural relativism and colonial feminism.

It jars more than slightly for a privileged academic (Phipps refers to herself as ‘a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle’) to reject the language that activists from the most respected and prominent NGOs use to frame the experiences of women in communities that practice FGM. I found myself wondering if Phipps deliberately rejects this framing because she views these organisations and survivors as under the umbrella of the radical feminists who are in turn in thrall to neocon law-and-order agendas. If so, then this example illustrates another way in which the intellectual positioning of this book, and Phipps’ wilful misrepresentation of radical feminism, leaves her arguments circulating within the rarefied sphere of the academy and totally detached from contemporary activism.

Not only is the term ‘female genital cutting’ used in this chapter, but the similarly problematic ‘wife-beating’ (with no ‘[sic]’ to suggest that it is someone else’s term with which she disagrees). There is a short section in this chapter on constructions of honour killing, which succinctly addresses the ways in which ‘culture’ (conflated with Islam?) is used as justification and explanation, whilst the motivations of ‘white’ men who kill women are not attributed to notions of honour. However, once again, to devote less than a page to violations of women’s bodies in a chapter of this potential scope, and instead spend most of its space on veiling, is wholly inadequate. What the key issues are for a political sociology of women’s bodies with respect to Islam depends on perspective; in the media it is indeed about veiling, and the contentions around ‘banning the burqa’. For those of us in the VAWG sector, there are deeper questions about the violations of women’s bodies, and representations of the Black woman’s body in relation to honour-based violence. There is, of course, a broad argument made here about the challenges facing feminism. But language matters, and ideas matter, and Phipps has chosen to position herself at one remove from specialists in the field and from many feminist activists.

The chapter on the sex industry reinforces this. Trafficking is only referenced in relation to that now rather tired old refrain about rad fems cheering on neocon rescue industries, a charge levelled at feminist organisations providing support to women who have been trafficked. Elsewhere, this slur is more insidiously used to suggest that such NGOs exaggerate the extent of trafficking. Again, my point here is not that the notions of rescue do not feature in the framings used by some of those that support victims of trafficking. I would have welcomed a discussion unpicking and evidencing this. Unfortunately, Phipps manages to problematise critical feminist perspectives on trafficking while providing no evidence for what is often a lazy pejoration.

The main thrust of this chapter, however, is a deconstruction of the ways in which arguments about women’s agency have been used to make the voices and experiences of the most privileged women in the sex industry the loudest. The wonderful term ‘sex work glitterati’ is deployed to great effect, exposing again how the appearance of cool liberalism privileges women who already enjoy social and economic capital, yet have become the ‘authentic’ voice of the sex industry. There is brief acknowledgement of how structural inequalities result in women choosing to commodify their bodies, which is then plated with a seemingly impenetrable veneer of voluntarism. The gendered asymmetry of prostitution is recognised, and ‘whorephobia’ – an accusation levelled noisily at most of us who critique the social institution of the sex industry – is identified as an example of the ‘politics of recognition’ which chooses to ignore structural inequalities.

So why might this otherwise trenchant critique be so disquieting? The first reason is relatively superficial – she insists on using the term ‘sex work’ throughout, language inextricably associated with the position that she critiques, rarely used by women in the sex industry (except by the ‘sex work glitterati’ that she discusses) and of course rejected by those of us with a more critical engagement. Secondly, in the binary of philosophically incompatible positions that Phipps discusses – sex radicals who celebrate the empowering potential of the sex industry and radical feminists for whose position she provides no explanation – she draws entirely on sex radical writing and research. Fair enough for a chapter aiming to interrogate this position. But it seems disingenuous to write a chapter on the politics of the sex industry which does not acknowledge any of the feminists who have for decades developed our thinking and empirical knowledge about it. It effaces our history, doubly so because it allows her to claim radical feminists’ arguments as her own.

Let us take a couple of her examples. (1) Evidence of trauma in ‘sex work’ – referenced to her own review of literature on this, not the radical feminist-inspired original research by Melissa Farley and her colleagues. (2) Failure of sex radicals to make the link between wider commodification of women’s bodies, especially in heterosexual exchanges? I can think of several pioneering – and radical – feminists who first put forward these very arguments. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Sheila Jeffreys all developed analyses which linked heterosexuality, the social institution of marriage, women’s economic dependence and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Yet they are invisible here.

We all build on the work of others, of course, and sometimes we may be unaware of some of these influences and omit to credit those who first say new things. However, combined with the constant belittling of radical feminism, the omission here seems less the self-absorption of which we can all be guilty and more a conscious attempt by Phipps to make the work of those with critical views of the sex industry invisible, and thus unimportant. I think of my students, who might take this chapter as a measured and balanced discussion of feminist politics on prostitution, and how they might finish it with no sense of the richness and complexity of radical feminist critiques; instead they will have a fist full of references for writers on the sex industry from a different position, and be left with a completely unbalanced view of the history and present shape of this debate. A deeper analysis would have considered the argument that there is nothing ‘sex radical’ about accepting that men need access to the bodies of the world’s poorest women and girls for sexual release. Phipps seems again unable to critique men’s actions and the choices they make to use women’s bodies.

As a treatise on how progressive movements, with progressive goals, have been co-opted by neoliberal agendas, this book will be a thought provoking and uncomfortable read for many. Phipps identifies some hugely important questions, not least the problem for feminism of figuring out how it got itself into a kind of ideological impasse: caught between a libertarian position, which holds to questionable notions of agency, and an experiential position which runs the risk of being cast as moralistic and authoritarian. The disappointing thing is that Phipps herself reinforces this dichotomy, uncritically reproducing the caricature version of a materialist feminism which is at the root of most activism around violence against women. For those of us that locate our politics of the body in radical feminism, however loosely, this book will cause discomfort because of the way it dismisses or misrepresents our thinking and political activism.

Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Polity Press, 2014.

Marching on

Debbie Cameron reviews Finn Mackay’s book Radical Feminism, which tells the story of Reclaim the Night and reflects on its place in feminist politics.  

Finn Mackay’s new book is several things at once. It’s a brief history of British feminisms from the beginning of the ‘second wave’ to the present day (with contextualizing excursions to the US and mainland Europe); it’s an explanation of what radical feminism was and is (and wasn’t and isn’t); it’s a detailed look at the origins and development of Reclaim The Night (RTN) as a form of feminist protest; and it explores the attitudes and motivations of activists involved in RTN today. Though the book is published by an academic press, it is evidently written (in plain English rather than theory-speak) to be accessible to a wider feminist audience. As well as the standard bibliography of references, it includes a list of resources for readers who want to get involved in campaigning, and a section on how to organize a RTN march.

The centre of the book is the author’s research on RTN, which draws not only on her own extensive experience as an organizer, but also on detailed interviews with 25 activists past and present, plus an online survey with 100 respondents. This material shows that RTN is not only a high-profile public protest against male violence and the way it constrains women’s lives: it is also a lightning rod for the larger political arguments going on within feminism at any given time. In the past RTN marches were the scene of arguments between radical feminists and leftist groups like Wages For Housework; they also prompted debate on racism in the women’s movement. Today they have become one arena in which ongoing conflicts about the sex industry, trans politics and the place of men in feminism are played out.


The first RTN march (though it was not yet actually called ‘Reclaim the Night’) took place in Brussels in 1976, following an international conference on crimes against women. It did not take long for similar events to be organized in Italy and Germany; and in November 1977 RTN came to Britain, with marches taking place in a dozen cities around the country. One of them was held in Leeds: the event had a special resonance there, because it was happening at a time when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, an as yet-unidentified sadistic sexual killer, was targeting women in several northern English cities. (He was, in fact, Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver living in Bradford.) The feminists who organized the Leeds march were tapping into a widely-felt anger, as well as fear, among women who were constantly told to protect themselves from the Ripper by staying off the streets at night, or making sure they were accompanied by men.

The route of the march went through Chapeltown, a part of Leeds where Sutcliffe had already killed. But Chapeltown was also an area with a significant Black and minority ethnic population, and this led to a long-running controversy about RTN and racism. The organizers were criticised for apparently suggesting that Black men were more likely than white men to engage in violence against women, and for demanding more aggressive policing of a community already subject to racist police harassment.

The idea that RTN was racist has been repeated in print sources many times since, as has the more general idea that radical feminists are uncritical supporters of the police and other agencies of state power. However, Finn Mackay’s research suggests that in this case it is based on a misrepresentation. The Leeds RTN organizer Al Garthwaite told her there had been no demand for more policing, of Chapeltown or anywhere else. The point was for women to reclaim public space themselves, not to get male authorities to do it for them. As well as being significant in the specific context of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, Chapeltown was an area where many feminists themselves lived, and those factors had determined its inclusion on the route of the march. As Al Garthwaite also pointed out, local feminists at the time had no trust in the police, whose response to the Ripper killings had been consistently sexist and victim-blaming, as well as ineffectual in practical terms.

In fact, Finn Mackay found that none of the 1970s RTN organizers she interviewed had much of a relationship with their local police force. Sandra McNeill, who organized the first London RTN, went so far as to say that even getting police permission to march, let alone enlisting their support, would have been ‘anathema’. Like most radicals in the 1970s, feminists (of all tendencies) were apt to regard the police as reactionary, more likely to arrest them than to offer them useful assistance.

Today RTN organizers have a closer and more positive relationship with the police, though Finn Mackay found there were differing views on this among activists. Some had similar opinions to Sandra McNeill, while others felt that policing is a public service, and women are entitled to demand that their safety should be taken seriously. However, the issues which are most difficult and divisive in current RTN organizing have less to do with feminism’s relationship to agents of state power, and more to do with conflicting views about the politics of ‘inclusiveness’ and women-only space.


RTN (like feminist activism generally) has become more receptive than it was in the 1970s to the active participation of men: whereas the early marches were women’s events, most current ones are mixed (though some limit men to a supporting role or ask them to stay at the back.) Again, this is something activists do not all agree about. The march organizers Finn Mackay interviewed were pragmatic: to maximise the impact of RTN you need large numbers of people marching, so it makes sense to include male supporters (especially if excluding them will also make some women reluctant to participate). However, most of the interviewees were in favour of marches being woman-led, and some expressed reservations about men’s involvement, saying it confused the issue or defeated the object of the exercise (if the point is about women reclaiming public space, it does not make much sense for them to be accompanied—or as onlookers might see it, chaperoned—by men). Some interviewees distrusted men’s motives even where they were placed in supporting roles: one referred to them as ‘glory stewards’, drawing attention to their own status as ‘good guys’.

Explaining her own support for women-only actions, Finn Mackay makes the point that arguments based on the idea of ‘inclusiveness’ are never quite as simple as they look. As one of her interviewees pointed out,

if it’s mixed then you’re not including everyone. You’re always excluding someone, and you’re choosing to exclude women who are survivors and who don’t want to march next to men, and you are making a decision to exclude them. So it’s not like you can include everyone, you’re always making a choice to exclude someone (159).

Similarly, organizers cannot guarantee that an inclusive policy statement about who can march will generate an inclusive or positive experience for everyone who does march. There are, for instance, ongoing tensions around the participation of pro-sex industry organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes (an offshoot of Wages for Housework), and there are always questions about how welcoming RTN is to trans women. Both groups have considerable experience of street harassment and male violence, and as a matter of policy they are not excluded from marching at RTN events. But that does not prevent arguments ‘on the ground’ with other marchers who oppose the policy of including them. Trans and the sex industry are significant faultlines within contemporary feminism, and these have always shown up on RTN marches just as they have in other, less public feminist forums.


As someone who participated in a few RTN actions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was interested in the comments some activists made to Finn Mackay about the ‘institutionalization’ of the marches—the well-organized rallies, the introduction of sponsorship, the greater involvement of the police, and conversely the loss of certain ‘unruly’ features of the old protests, which sometimes deviated from the planned route and often involved a certain amount of direct action (like graffiti-writing or gluing the locks of sex-shops). Part of the reason for this is size: in the old days a lot of marches were relatively small, sometimes organized at short notice as a protest against something that had happened locally, and there was no need to close the streets to accommodate them. Also, as some veteran activists pointed out, since the early 1980s there has been a tightening of the legal restrictions on public protest (you do need permission now, and you can’t just go where you like), along with a huge growth in the use of CCTV (which means that if you do take direct action there is a high risk you will be caught). Even the traditional flaming torches carried by marchers in the 1970s are no longer permitted because of the cost of cleaning spilled wax off the pavement.

RTN was always an example of the ‘politics of spectacle’, i.e. the point was public visibility, but what’s most spectacular about it has changed: especially in London and other large cities, what’s impressive is the sheer number of people marching (also their colourful appearance and the noise they make). At the much smaller events I remember from the past, the spectacle had more to do with a group of women appearing and behaving in a noisy, confrontational way in areas where their presence was not expected or welcomed, or—in normal circumstances—considered ‘safe’. Maybe this is ironic, since the point of RTN was (and still is) to affirm women’s right to be safe in public space, but for me what was most positive about the (old) experience of marching was the feeling of actually confronting danger (and the men who embodied it) without the usual fears and inhibitions. I don’t think you get that from marching through closed-off city-centre streets under the watchful eyes of stewards and the police. I don’t think you get it in the same way in a mixed march, either.

But Finn Mackay has a good answer to those of us who may occasionally feel that RTN has lost its edge and become just another annual fixture on the feminist calendar. As she points out, it serves as a gateway through which many women find their way into feminist activism. As one of her interviewees put it, ‘RTN is a pretty easy banner to unite under. …When a RTN is organised in your city, it acts as a platform for collaborating, networking, awareness raising, relationship building’. Another woman who had become very active in local anti-VAW organizations since first taking part in a march, said:

I reckon that I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for RTN, and I wouldn’t be doing the things I am. Because you get the solidarity, but you get aware of all the organisations as well, like Rape Crisis, and it’s great, motivating and inspiring (p.261).


Motivating and inspiring is an important task for any radical political movement, and it’s something Finn Mackay is good at. She is well-known among feminists for her energy and positivity as a campaigner, her practical approach to political organizing and her ability to speak in a straightforward, engaging way to both feminist and general audiences. All those qualities are also visible in her book. She is clear about her own views on issues like the sex industry and women-only space, but other views expressed by the women she interviewed are presented fairly and not unsympathetically. In general she is more inclined to emphasize the positive (what feminists of different persuasions share, and can therefore build on in campaigning) than the negative and divisive. You might say it’s an activist’s preference rather than a theorist’s—we’re never going to agree with everyone about everything, but what matters in the real world is building bridges where we can, so that something can actually be achieved.

Another kind of bridge-building Finn Mackay is clearly committed to is between the present and the past, or to put it another way, between different generations of feminists. For those who weren’t around in the 1970s, the early chapters contain a lot of informative stuff about British second wave feminism, and particularly the radical variety, which (as we have remarked in T&S many times) is appallingly badly served by most existing histories. This book doesn’t totally fill the gap: it’s more a sketch than a detailed portrait, because it’s trying to do other things as well. But it does cover some important basics.

It also makes an explicit break with the assumption that what should be emphasized in any historical narrative about feminism is change rather than continuity, and that ‘change’ essentially means ‘progress’. Often this leads to the feminism of the recent past being represented merely as a catalogue of errors and failures, making it impossible for those who weren’t involved to relate to their predecessors in a positive way. By contrast, Finn Mackay thinks today’s activists can learn something important from the women who came before. She recommends that readers should seek out both the classic writings of the second wave and the archives in which past feminist ideas and actions are recorded (the T&S archive, available on this site, is one of those she lists).

She also makes an argument about continuity which I was not expecting. Even if the new generation of feminists uses a different language, a lot of what they believe (as demonstrated in her interviews, where she asked women what they wanted to see feminism actually accomplish) is in practice quite close to the ‘seven demands’ of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement* . One of her interviewees even said this:

I’m kind of fascinated by whether we do actually need a card-carrying feminist, you know, back to the Seven Demands. So, this is what it means to be a feminist, and if you don’t agree with these, you’re not a fucking feminist (p.286).

Now, there’s a radical thought.

* The seven demands were: (1) equal pay; (2) equal opportunities in education and employment; (3) free contraception and abortion on demand; (4) free 24-hour nurseries; (5) legal and financial independence; (6) the right of women to define their own sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians; (7) freedom from intimidation by the threat or the use of violence and sexual coercion.


Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave in February 2015–details here.finn

Classic Review: Surviving Sexual Violence 1

Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.

I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.

In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).

The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):

• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.

Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’

Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that

most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).

The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).

Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.

Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice

The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.

Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.

Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.

Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.

Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’

Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV

. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).

This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.

Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy’; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.

The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.

The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.

Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247).  Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.

Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.

Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’

Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)

Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.

Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.

New times and new challenges

Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.

Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.

Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.

It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:

Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)

We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.

A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).

If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.


Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)

Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.


Straight Expectations: extracts from Julie Bindel’s new book 4

Cover of the book Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel‘From picket line to picket fence’, a quote from the back cover of Julie Bindel’s new book Straight Expectations, is a good indication of the content, style and tone of the book, in which she laments the decline of the gay liberation movement, with all its creative political resistance, in favour of assimilation and complacency. In this book she takes issue with gay marriage, the commercialisation of gay life-styles, and the lack of political solidarity amongst more privileged gays in the UK (those who have experienced a sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality), with gays and lesbians internationally who face ongoing oppression and persecution. We here publish two extracts from the most controversial chapter in her book, Is It Something in the Genes?, in which she argues that gays and lesbians are ‘not born that way’, an argument which will be welcomed by most lesbian feminists, and readers of T&S, for whom the social construction of sexuality has long been a central plank of our politics (see the archive section for numerous articles on this subject, for example: Stevi Jackson Taking Liberties, or Deborah Cameron’s Old Het? ).

Nature or nurture?

The ‘nature versus nurture’ question has been bothering scientists, religious fundamentalists, parents and gay people themselves for over 100 years, with the first scientific study into the issue being published by the experimental psychologist Evelyn Hooker in 1956, and it was indeed her pioneering work that helped to establish the fact that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.

It is still a hotly debated subject. In July 2007 the New Statesman ran two articles on the topic in its ‘Gay Special’. One was by a gay man who had converted himself back to heterosexuality, and the other by a gay man who had spent two decades trying and failing to do the same, both with the ‘help’ of the anti-gay Christian conversion movement. The former argued strongly that being gay is a choice, the latter equally strongly that he was ‘born that way’.

For anyone vaguely liberal, it is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives – that is, the need and desire to uphold the status quo. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice.

The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument is it allows some gay people surviving in a hostile environment not to have to feel responsible for their actions and desires; it can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless.

The flip side of this is that those young men and women growing up in a hostile environment who do not wish to pursue a straight life and feel dissatisfied with their lot are being fed the line that some people are born gay and some straight, and that biology is most certainly destiny when it comes to sexual orientation. The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight.

Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual. However, it’s unlikely that any bigots will be reassured by the fact that some of us insist we are happily and proudly choosing being gay or lesbian over heterosexuality, even if it does mean more potential candidates for conversion therapy for them. Anyway, since when did a proud liberation movement allow its enemies to define the terms of the debate?

I have always believed that pushing nature over nurture plays straight into the hands of anti-gay bigots. By arguing that we are born this way, gay men and lesbians do not represent a challenge to the status quo. A gay gene is, by implication, something that is not really supposed to be present, and so to adopt this theory means that we are accepting that heterosexuality and straight folk are normal and we are outside of that, looking in.

When I argue that for me, being a lesbian is a positive choice rather than something imposed upon me by a quirk of nature, I am roundly criticised and viewed with suspicion. I have been accused of being a fake lesbian, a cold fish and of appropriating the term ‘lesbian’ to further my man-hating, anti-heterosexual agenda.

I made a conscious and happy choice to be a lesbian and reckon that when we have less anti-gay bigotry, more people will be free to do so. But when I use the word ‘choice’, I don’t mean in the same manner that you choose your cereal. Rather, I am suggesting that if we were not under such extreme pressure to be straight, and if we did not fear the inevitable prejudice and bigotry, we might be more open to falling for someone of the same sex.

In November 2012 I gave a speech on this very topic at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, Newcastle, which was later broadcast on Radio 3. It was entitled ‘Not Born That Way’, and I argued that sexuality was a choice and not inherent, and that much of the science claiming to have discovered a gay gene was weak and had proved nothing. Following my speech, which was in front of a live audience, several heterosexual women and men approached me and told me that I had significantly challenged their beliefs – all had, prior to the event, assumed that sexuality was innate and therefore fixed and static. They all said that my arguments made sense to them, and that they had only ever heard anti- gay bigots suggest that gay people ‘choose’ their sexuality.

I abhor the bigoted view that promotes the notion of a cure for being lesbian or gay. My position is that if something is not a sickness or disease, there is no need to find a cure. I came away from the event feeling pleased that I had opened up some people’s minds to the possibility that being lesbian is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality it is good enough for some of us to choose it.

Yet clearly not everyone thinks this way. Why has so much time and effort been invested in discovering a cause for being gay or lesbian? So parents can decide whether to abort? Or is it because the majority of people cannot get to grips with the fact that bigotry and prejudice are the problems that need solving, and we do not need a cure. All the comments us lezzers have endured over the years – such as ‘you don’t you know what you’re missing’ – come from the mistaken belief that batting for the other side is a disadvantage. Actually, a lot of us know precisely what we are missing. That is the point.


~ * ~ * ~ * ~


How beliefs about sexuality have changed over time

Despite the domination of the ‘born that way’ theory these days, it is interesting to note that it is a relatively recent phenomenon and has only become prevalent in the last couple of decades. In her 1999 book Generations of Women Choosing to Become Lesbian: Questioning the Essentialist Link, Australian academic Lorene Gottschalk interviewed three different generations of lesbians on whether or not they believed in biology. Gottschalk found that those who became lesbians in the 1970s believed they chose their sexuality, but those who became lesbians in the 1990s thought it was biology. More evidence that what we’re talking about is a set of fashionable ideas, rather than something that has a scientific basis.

Certainly, starting in the 1950s to the 1960s and 1970s, social constructionism was fashionable among scientists and academics generally. In 1968, for example, British sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote a wonderful piece entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’, which argued that the idea of the homosexual was constructed to keep the rest of the hetero-patriarchy safe: as long as they separated it out and said it was biological, everybody else was OK.

It seems, therefore, that gay sociologists were questioning the notion of innate sexuality as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And before this time it was fashionable to believe that turning out lesbian or gay was all down to the parents: for men, an emotionally distant father or stifling mother; for women, an under-emotional mother and father, who took her to the pub often due to the absence of a son.

But by the 1980s this began to change and the idea of the gay gene (or, as anti-gays refer to it, ‘gay germ’ – homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection) was born. Work began in earnest the following decade to try to track down the elusive gene. Such research was often perceived as pro-gay because it presented homosexuality as something that could not be freely chosen. However, biological accounts continued to describe gays and lesbians as somehow ill, deficient or imbalanced, and to suggest that heterosexuality was the norm.

The GLF, as evidenced in its 1971 manifesto, spurned the idea of a gay gene. But today we have an almost 180-degree shift in thinking. I asked Peter Tatchell, who was a member of the GLF, his views on the debate.

‘My argument at the time [of the GLF] was: “Let’s not play fast and loose with the truth. Let’s stick to the principle that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. We don’t have to be the same to get equal respect; we shouldn’t have to be the same to get equal respect and equal rights.” In this period there was very little evidence that gave any biological credibility to the coordination of homosexuality. A much more plausible explanation was the Freudian one that everyone is born with bisexual potential and that homosexuality is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality. My view at the time was: “What causes homosexuality or heterosexuality is irrelevant; we are human beings and we deserve human rights.”’

In recent years, however, Tatchell’s views have shifted towards believing in a genetic or biological basis of sexual orientation, as he argues that the science is now more advanced. He believes that there is a ‘genetic component to sexual orientation’ and that there is ‘some significant influence from hormones in the womb’. He continues: ‘I say that as someone in the past who in the absence of this research was very sceptical about the biological factors having anything other than a small marginal influence, but I think over time the evidence has grown. However, I don’t believe it is the whole story, only part of it.’ Indeed, he retains an essential clarity as to the reason why so many people wish to argue in favour of the ‘innate’ argument: ‘I think there was really this kind of desperate sense to make whatever appeal might work. It was all about sympathy and appealing to people’s conscience regardless of the facts or the truth.’

The idea of being born gay has always seemed bonkers to me. I don’t know about you but I was born a baby, not a lesbian. At least, I don’t remember fancying the midwife. But perhaps my holding such strong and contrary views on this topic is partly because of the fact that I was exposed, while still in my teens, to the radical but commonsense position of some feminists on sexual preference – ie that it, like gender, is a social construction.

These feminists, living in the West Yorkshire city of Leeds, subscribed to the theory of political lesbianism that came from the early US feminists such as Jill Johnson and Adrienne Rich. In 1981 small group of them had written the infamous booklet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. It reads: ‘All feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.’

Appealing to their heterosexual sisters to get rid of men ‘from your beds and your heads’, the authors of Love Your Enemy? called for all feminists to embrace lesbianism. ‘We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality,’ the manifesto reads. ‘Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed.’

The message of Love Your Enemy? immediately provoked a strong and often negative reaction. While some radical feminists agreed with the group’s arguments, many went wild at being told they were ‘counter-revolutionaries’, undermining the fight for women’s liberation by sleeping with men.

The publication of Love Your Enemy? was one of the first times that the notion of sexuality as a choice had been publicly raised in the UK women’s movement. Many feminists considered sexuality purely a matter of personal desire, and the idea that lesbianism could be a political decision was perceived as ‘cold-blooded’. Heterosexual women tended to believe that one did not choose sexual orientation or feelings, but was overcome by them.

I learned from the feminists that, to them, lesbianism was a choice that women could make, not a condition we are born with. ‘All women can be lesbians’ was the mantra. I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality. Rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud and see it as a privilege.


~ * ~ * ~ * ~


Julie Bindel, Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean to be Gay Today? (Guardian Books, London, 2014)

For some current commentary on the book, see:

Review by Rosa Bennathan in Bad Housekeeping Magazine

Review by Alex Hopkins in The Huffington Post

Interview with Julie Bindel by Patrick Strudwick in The Independent:

A Sphere of One’s Own

Attachment parenting, mommy blogging, hipster homemakers and urban homesteaders…Delilah Campbell reads a book about the new domesticity.

Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Back in 2001, I wrote an article for T&S about the ‘new domesticity’– a sudden revival of popular interest in the art of keeping house. Knitting was back in vogue, and cleaning was the subject of a popular reality TV show. Nigella Lawson published a book entitled How To Be a Domestic Goddess, and a rash of glossy magazine articles featured women who had given up their high-powered careers to concentrate on full-time homemaking.

Thirteen years later, it’s clear that this was not just a passing fad. Cath Kidston, the queen of retro household accessories,  is a global brand; the Great British Bake-Off is a national institution. University students have formed branches of the Women’s Institute. And the new domesticity is also big on the other side of the Atlantic, where according to Emily Matchar, the return of the full-time housewife is a genuine trend. Her book Homeward Bound is an attempt to investigate what’s behind this phenomenon, and to ask what it might tell us about the times in which we live. She thinks it has a lot to tell us: ‘Our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania’, she argues, ‘speak to deep cultural longings and a profound shift in the way Americans view life’ (4).

Whatever happened to Betty Friedan?

Homeward Bound was published in 2013, exactly 50 years after another book–Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique–helped to propel an earlier generation of women out of the kitchen and into the workforce. The main audience for Friedan’s denunciation of the 1950s cult of domesticity was white middle-class women with college degrees. And it is women from this same demographic who are now moving back into the home. Not surprisingly, Matchar wonders what’s behind this reversal: why are these young women voluntarily embracing a role their mothers and grandmothers were desperate to escape from?

One major reason is the state of the economy. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, un- and under-employment have been serious problems for the young adults of ‘Generation Y’ (born between the mid-1970s and the 1990s). Many find themselves drifting through a series of unpaid internships and unfulfilling temp jobs; even if they find jobs with more security and status, the conditions which are common in US workplaces (80-hour weeks, no statutory maternity or sick leave) make no accommodation to the desire for ‘work/life balance’, or the practical needs of women with children. Rather than ‘leaning in’, these women are opting out.

For some of the homeward bound, another important motivation is concern about the future of the planet. In their search for more sustainable ways of living, some of today’s hipsters are following the earlier example of the hippies by going back to the land (though not, it seems, to set up communes: these days it’s more about the small family farm). Others have adopted the practice of ‘urban homesteading’, where the aim is to live self-sufficiently or ‘off the grid’ in the city or the suburbs. A related trend is the growth of anxiety about what’s in our food (pesticides? E Coli? horsemeat?). The new middle-class ideal is to avoid industrially produced food by cooking from scratch with seasonal, local ingredients. Even if you don’t aspire to grow your own produce, this approach to feeding a family demands significant time and effort.

Matchar sees these worries about the environment and food as part of a more general distrust of authority and ‘the system’ which extends to all kinds of public institutions. Home birth and homeschooling are both on the rise, especially among the white middle classes. There is also a new enthusiasm for time and labour-intensive forms of childcare, like ‘attachment parenting’ (a rather creepy phenomenon which I’ll come back to later on).

Another factor Matchar mentions is the attraction of low-tech, DIY lifestyles for people who grew up in the digital age. It’s true that the new domesticity celebrates traditional, pre-industrial modes of production, but to me it is also striking how heavily the lifestyles described in the book rely on access to digital technology. Social media, in particular, have transformed the experience of being at home: they’re a major reason why today’s housewives do not experience the isolation, alienation and lack of recognition which their 1960s counterparts found so oppressive. All the women Matchar interviewed were involved in online networks; some spent several hours a day at their computers.

Is domesticity the new feminism?

If Matchar’s first question is about the larger social forces that are driving the new domesticity, her second is about its sexual politics, and how today’s domesticated women relate to feminism. The ones she spoke to were certainly critical of a particular kind of feminism: the kind espoused by their own mothers, women who had heeded Betty Friedan’s advice and put their energies into their careers. But they denied that they were anti-feminist. On the contrary, a number of them claimed to be more authentically and radically feminist than the overstressed career-women who raised them.

Matchar explains this by invoking the distinction between liberal, equal rights feminism and what she calls ‘cultural feminism’. The women she talked to were cultural feminists: they criticized their mothers’ liberal feminism for putting ‘male’ values (like money and status) above ‘female’ ones (like taking care of others), and for devaluing women’s traditional skills. Some felt that by relearning the skills their mothers had rejected, they were reclaiming a rich female cultural heritage.

I don’t like the term ‘cultural feminism’ (which I’ve never heard any woman use to describe her own politics), but what Matchar describes using that label has always been one strand in feminism, and up to a point (the point at which it becomes mystical, essentialist bullshit) there is something to be said for it. In my ideal feminist world there would certainly be a shift in values as well as in the distribution of wealth and power. In this world, however, there are some serious problems with the claim that the new domesticity is a ‘feminist’ movement.

The political economy of the new domesticity

The first problem is economic. Almost without exception, the women Matchar talked to were dependent on a male partner’s wage to pay the rent and the bills, and (this being the US) for access to health insurance. Betty Friedan may have seen paid work as a source of personal fulfilment, but for most early second-wave feminists its importance had more to do with financial independence and autonomy/equality within heterosexual relationships. Women needed to earn money, among other things, to avoid being dependent on a man who might walk out on them, or who might abuse them. Those were not rare scenarios then, and they are not rare scenarios now. Yet Matchar’s subjects seemed not to have considered what they would do if their relationships broke down and they were left to fend for themselves.

This may be because they didn’t see how limited their economic options really were. The new domesticity has spawned its own market economy, and many women imagine that they will be able to use that to generate an income. It is possible, for instance, to make money from blogging about your domestic life: a popular blog with a large number of followers can attract advertising revenue, commercial sponsorship and—in exceptional cases—very lucrative book or TV deals. There’s a whole meta-industry of courses and conventions for women who want to break into this business. But in reality it’s an overcrowded market: a few ‘mommy bloggers’ have become rich and famous, but the majority, even with sponsorship, do not make enough to live on.

The same goes for the other main route through which the new domesticity can be ‘monetized’, which is selling your handicrafts on websites like Etsy. Etsy is a globally successful business started by three hipster dudes (i.e., men). They provide the (virtual) retail space, and in return, the makers/sellers (the vast majority of whom are women) pay them commission on every sale. It’s a business model that works well for the site-owners, but the only way for women to make more than a pittance is to collude in their own exploitation by working extremely long hours. Betty Friedan compared the 1950s suburban home to ‘a comfortable concentration camp’; some of the new urban homesteads where women have set up businesses making jam or soap or baby clothes could be likened to comfortable sweatshops.

No such thing as society?

The ‘alternative’ market economy Matchar describes seemed to me very much in the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the late Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher is a guiding spirit in another way, too: it was she who famously declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. As Emily Matchar observes, the new domesticity puts that principle into practice, offering small-scale, privatized solutions to large-scale social problems like environmental degradation, corporate greed, unfair working conditions and the dearth of affordable, decent-quality childcare. And as she also says, the result is a vicious circle. The more individuals and families assert their right to do their own thing (grow their own food or home-school their own children), the less likely it is that there will be collective pressure for changes which would benefit everyone—including or especially those who can’t afford to go down the DIY route. This rejection of collective politics and social solidarity is another respect in which the new domesticity is anything but feminist.

In some cases, the right to do your own thing clearly conflicts with the interests of the larger community. An example is the opposition to vaccination which has become widespread among middle-class devotees of attachment parenting. In some areas the number of parents refusing vaccination has decreased overall ‘herd immunity’ to the point where there have been major outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough. When that happens, it’s the poorest children who are most likely to die or suffer serious complications. But the anti-vaccine parents feel no obligation to other people’s kids. What they demand is the right to do what they believe is best for their own.

Some of the beliefs espoused by Matchar’s interviewees suggest youthful idealism (‘I don’t want to work for the Man’/ ‘I want to live lightly on the earth’) and naive optimism (‘my husband/boyfriend will always support me/ ‘my kids will always need me’) rather than overtly reactionary political ideologies. But with the anti-vaccine crusaders we begin to see a darker side: what Matchar calls ‘cultural feminism’ meeting up with religious and/or right-wing extremism. On her travels around the US, Matchar found hipster homemakers rubbing shoulders with evangelical Christian or Mormon women who believed their roles were ordained by God, and self-sufficient urban homesteaders finding common ground with ‘preppers’—survivalists preparing for Armageddon, whose political views are so right-wing (think hardcore gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists), they make the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party.

Perhaps the most significant of these peculiar political alliances has formed around the practice of attachment parenting (AP), an approach to child-rearing developed by the paediatrician William Sears. Dr Sears is a Christian fundamentalist who advocates the submission of wives to husbands; but this has not prevented his ideas from becoming popular among liberal and hipster parents (including lesbian and gay couples), and getting public endorsement from high-profile media celebrities (the late Peaches Geldof was a British devotee).

The AP approach demands total responsiveness to the needs of your developing child, and it clearly reflects its inventor’s ultra-conservative gender politics. In the first six weeks Sears maintains that mothers should be with their infants 24/7; thereafter, babies should be carried in a sling, sleep in their parents’ bed and be breastfed for an extended period. They should not have fixed schedules for eating or sleeping, and they should not be left to cry even for a few minutes. This makes childcare an all-consuming task, and in Sears’s view it is ‘natural’ for that task to fall to the mother, who alone is biologically equipped with the instincts it demands. And this doesn’t stop as the baby gets older: AP also maintains that ‘natural’ is best when it comes to weaning (commercial baby food is poison, so it should all be home-made), toilet training (use cloth nappies or no nappies), and education (kids should learn at their own pace, about whatever they want—so the answer is home-schooling with Mom as the teacher).

You wonder how all these intensively attached, 24/7 career mothers are going fill the 30+ years after their kids leave home; but in the meantime, what you mostly wonder is (a) how women whose own parents did send them to school can believe so much crap, and (b) how liberal/hipster types can manage to ignore who else, apart from their babies, they’re getting into bed with.

A new feminine mystique

In 2001 I was ambivalent about the new domesticity. I still think some aspects of it are harmless (if you want to make pastry or knit socks, be my guest), and some of the impulses behind it are arguably quite progressive. We should all be more concerned about the environment, and we should all recognise–as feminists have always done–that caring for other people is essential work which no society could function without. Overall, though, reading Homeward Bound has made me feel that any positive aspects of the new domesticity are more than outweighed by its reactionary elements.

What’s particularly problematic about it from a feminist perspective is its underlying ideology of gender: it assumes that caring for others and saving the planet are women’s responsibilities rather than everyone’s, and that they are best done (or can only be done) within the traditional, patriarchal family. This is what enables the liberal/green/hipster version of domesticity to coexist so comfortably with the religious fundamentalist version. Both buy into traditional views of masculinity and femininity, and both affirm the doctrine of ‘separate spheres’, which says that women should exercise their authority in the home while men have power in the wider world.

It’s depressing that this idea has proved to be so persistent, but perhaps it should not surprise us. The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.

But in addition to reproducing patriarchal attitudes and structures, this arrangement has a toxic effect on women’s relationships with each other. The domesticated woman may not compete with men for status, but since she isn’t, in reality, a modest self-effacing angel, she competes instead with other woman on the terrain of domesticity itself. We see this in the endless hostilities between full-time homemakers and ‘career women’; we see it in what daughters say about their feminist mothers (and vice-versa—a lot of women told Emily Matchar that their mothers disapproved of them ‘throwing away’ their educations and career prospects); we see it in a particularly ugly form when middle-class attachment mothers judge poorer women as ignorant and negligent because they don’t breastfeed for years or make their own organic baby food.

There is also the issue of mothers’ power over their children. One woman who had given up attachment parenting told Matchar she thought it appealed to some women because it legitimized their desire to have total control, shutting out both the father and outside institutions. Homeschooling extended that monopoly into childhood and adolescence. This kind of maternal control is the acceptable face of female power, since it is presented as ‘natural’, and as self-sacrificing rather than self-aggrandising. But radical feminists like Christine Delphy have argued that it is oppressive: children should not be treated as women’s personal property any more than women should be treated as the property of men.

The return to domesticity does show up a lot of things that are wrong with the societies we live in (and the USA is not alone here), but it is not the radical alternative movement its supporters claim. Neither the fact that today’s women are embracing it by choice, nor the idyllic portrayals we encounter in the media, should prevent us from seeing it for what it really is: a 21st century ‘upcycling’ of the feminine mystique.

New article: book review by Debbie Cameron of Sex Itself by Sarah S. Richardson

Why are feminists frightened of science, asks Debbie Cameron, when they have no such qualms about engaging in debates on other complex issues, and even reading dense theoretical texts about culture?  Sarah Richardson’s book, Sex Itself, about the fascinating history of the X and Y chromosomes and their cultural significance, is, Debbie argues in her review, a thoroughly rewarding read.

cartoon by cath jackson with X chromosomes oohing and aahing Y chromosome with willy

Oh You Sexied Thing!

Cartoon by Cath Jackson © Cath Jackson 2014

End of Equality

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.

Unfinished revolution

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