Turning the tide 1

They said feminism was finished, but imagine our surprise (not)–a new generation is continuing the struggle. How and why they’re getting organized to fight women’s oppression is the subject of a trio of new British books. Delilah Campbell joined the authors on the barricades…

You wait for years for a feminist book and then three come along at once. Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion and Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls hit the bookshops earlier this year; Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune’s Reclaiming the F-word will be published in June. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or a nod to the 40th anniversary of women’s liberation in Britain, but the appearance of three new titles in six months does seem like a sign of changing times.

Taking on post-feminism

The three books are strikingly similar in their overall aims and subject-matter. They all set out to challenge the ‘post-feminist’ view that sexism has been defeated, paying particular attention to problems which have worsened in recent years—the increasing pressure women feel to conform to oppressive ideals of physical attractiveness, the massive growth in porn consumption which has accompanied the rise of the internet, and the mainstreaming of a sex industry that used to be more marginal (strip joints rebranded as aspirational ‘gentlemen’s clubs’; pole-dancing marketed as a fun activity for hen-parties). And they all discuss the recent resurgence of grassroots feminist activism, giving thumbnail sketches of (and, usefully, contact details for) a number of recently-formed campaigns and organizations.

The Equality Illusion is structured as a journey through everywoman’s day. We wake up in chapter one with Ellen, a woman who has a severe eating disorder; in chapter two we go to school with Jena, who is experiencing sexual bullying, and in chapter three we meet Elizabeth, an immigrant working mother trapped in a low-paid exploitative job. We come home from work with Amy, a woman whose boyfriend is violent towards her, and go out for the evening with Lucy, who works in a lap-dancing club. Finally we meet Latisha, dependent on her unreliable partner and responsible for the care of a child she wasn’t ready to have at that point in her life. In each chapter, the initial case-study leads into a general discussion of the issue (body image, sexism in education and at work, rape and domestic violence,  pornography and prostitution, abortion), backed up with a stream of research studies and statistics.

Kat Banyard used to work for the Fawcett Society, and on the face of it her politics are liberal: she covers the pay gap, the glass ceiling, women’s reproductive rights, and devotes a whole section to the benefits of feminism for men. Even the Guardian’s reviewer thought The Equality Illusion was a bit wishy-washy.  Read attentively, though, I think there’s more to it than that. When Banyard writes about certain subjects, like the relentless objectification of women and the way they are induced to hate their own bodies, her anger fairly steams off the page. And there’s nothing reformist about her concluding call to arms, which reminded me an early radical feminist manifesto.  ‘Ending discrimination against women’, she declares, ‘will require no less than a total transformation of society at every level: international, national, local and individual’ (p.207).

Natasha Walter is the most established writer of the group; her first book The New Feminism saw her hailed as the voice of the younger generation more than a decade ago. At this point in her career, a cynic might have expected her to join the many women who have kept up with changing fashions by recanting their feminism altogether. But in fact Living Dolls is a rare example of the opposite. Having suggested in The New Feminism that sexism was in the process of withering away, Walter now says baldly: ‘I was entirely wrong’ (p.8).

Her target in the first half of the book is the ‘new hypersexual culture [which] defines female success through a narrow framework of sexual allure’ (p.10). Today’s women, especially middle-class ones, have many more opportunities than women did 40 years ago, but whatever else they may do, they are also expected to present themselves as willing playthings, the ‘living dolls’ of the title. The new definition of the female high-achiever is someone like Brooke Magnanti, aka ‘Belle de Jour’: by day she’s a research scientist working on her Ph.D; by night she’s…a prostitute! How cool is that? So cool that Belle/Brooke’s adventures (in the sex trade, not the lab) have been turned into a TV series. Walter sets out to show why this is not an advance for women, but just ‘the resurgence of old sexism in new guises’ (p.10).

Natasha Walter deserves credit for her willingness to swim against the post-feminist tide—particularly as you could argue that her own earlier work helped to give that tide momentum. But she still seems very anxious to avoid any hint of illiberal ‘extremism’, prefacing otherwise strong criticisms with some brow-furrowing disclaimer like ‘there is, of course, nothing intrinsically degrading or miserable about a woman pole-dancing, stripping, having sex with large numbers of partners or consuming pornography’ (p.119). (Here I had to pause to ask myself quite what else she imagined the intrinsic point of pole-dancing might be.) I did start to suspect that this was a rhetorical tactic, the debating equivalent of the sucker-punch: first you make some liberal concession, like dismissing the equation of pornography with violence as ‘simplistic’ (p.114), but then you hit the reader with the sentence that says the opposite (‘yet let’s be honest. …too much pornography does rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women’).

If you can get past all the caveats and qualifications, what Walter ends up presenting is actually a pretty strong condemnation of porn culture and the sex industry. If she is less obviously enraged than Kat Banyard, I would guess that’s because she belongs to a generation which did not grow up with the oppressive porn-driven practices both writers document (full pubic depilation as the norm for young heterosexual women, labiaplasty for an increasing number, boys barely in their teens swapping images of anal sex on their mobile phones at school).

On the other hand, Walter (who is the mother of daughters) is more exercised than Banyard about the way girls’ desires are now moulded from infancy by a powerful consumer culture peddling frilly pink femininity, with little or no resistance from parents who have largely given up on the old feminist project of non-sexist child-rearing. The second half of Living Dolls is a critical examination of the new biological determinism which has helped to make this respectable again, by telling us it’s no good fighting your daughter’s innate yearning for princess costumes and toy irons. For this purpose—sifting through scientific evidence—the ‘balanced’ approach is a strength, lending Walter’s conclusions more credibility than she would get by simply ranting. (Translated into rantish, what she concludes is that most of the new sex-difference science is actually simplistic sexist bullshit.)

In Reclaiming the F-Word Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune set out to assess not only the condition of women, but also the state of feminism in contemporary Britain, as revealed by a survey they conducted with members of feminist groups and organizations founded since 2000. Responses came from 1265 self-identified feminists, three-quarters of them under 35. Men were not excluded, but over 90% of the respondents were women. A large majority described themselves as white—though the authors point out that Britain isn’t the USA, and claim that other ethnic groups were not seriously under-represented given the overall balance of the population—and a narrower majority, around 60%, identified as heterosexual.

Redfern and Aune begin, bracingly, by expressing their frustration with the way younger women’s feminism is variously ignored, misrepresented or criticised by the media, and sometimes also by older feminists comparing the present unfavourably to the glory days of the 1970s. As they say, the fact that ‘only’ 25% of young women would call themselves feminists should not be taken as evidence that feminism is dead: active feminists were a minority of women at the height of the second wave too. And if today’s activists do some things differently, that is also a sign of life rather than death: all living entities change.

But rather than pandering to the media stereotype of ‘generations of feminists fighting like cats in a bag’ (p.xii), these authors are more inclined to stress the continuity between the second wave and their own ‘new feminist movement’. After recapitulating the seven demands formulated by the British WLM in the 1970s, they offer their own seven demands: today’s feminists, they say, want ‘liberated bodies, sexual freedom and choice, an end to violence against women, equality at work and at home, politics and religion transformed, popular culture free from sexism, feminism reclaimed’ (p. 17). This list (which as they point out overlaps significantly with the original one) provides the organizing structure for the rest of the book, with each of their seven points getting its own chapter.

The chapter on bodies confirmed that this is a major issue for younger feminists. Redfern and Aune say bluntly that whereas many things are much better for young women now than they were in 1970, ‘where the body’s concerned, things are much worse’ (p.18). Their chapter ranges more widely than Banyard’s on the same subject (taking in, for instance, such issues as FGM and misogynistic attitudes to menstruation), but the main targets are the same: eating disorders promoted by ever-increasing pressure to be thin, plastic surgery legitimised by the idea that ordinary female bodies are not only unattractive but actually abnormal.

The chapter on sex also covers some of the same ground as the corresponding parts of the other two books, such as the growth of porn and its influence on everyday sexual practice. However, Redfern and Aune’s position is difficult to pin down. On one hand they do make some strong criticisms of porn (they suggest, for instance, that using it is unethical when the user cannot know how freely those depicted consented to participate, and therefore whether what is shown is actual abuse), but they also rehearse the ‘pro-sex’ or ‘pro-pleasure’ arguments of the sexual libertarian strand in post-1980s feminism. The section at the end which focuses on how feminists are fighting back (every chapter has one of these) discusses not only campaigns like Object! (which targets lap-dancing clubs) but also sex blogs like Abby Lee’s Girl with a One-Track Mind.

Then again, Reclaiming the F-Word is the only book among the three that explicitly challenges compulsory heterosexuality (the other two do not even have an index entry for lesbians). And the discussion of prostitution is placed not in the sex chapter but in the chapter on violence against women. Though they do give some space to the views of those who defend the sex trade, the emphasis falls on the other side—the abuse suffered by prostituted women, and the way paying for sex ‘reflects an underlying sense of male entitlement’ (p.95), which would still be a problem even if abuse and coercion were not.

The absence of a consistent ‘line’ on sex points to a characteristic of this book which makes it a different kind of reading experience from the other two. Whereas Kat Banyard and (especially) Natasha Walter are strong authorial presences, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune do not impose their own personalities, preferring to present a multiplicity of voices. Even the book’s layout reflects this: many pages display a boxed quote or have a series of quotes in the margin, reproducing without comment the views of feminists who took part in the survey. Partly the authors’ self-effacement signals their commitment to collectivism: they are not just speaking for themselves, but trying to represent the views and concerns of a wider feminist community. They don’t want to be seen as leaders or spokeswomen, saying explicitly in their conclusion that no individual either can or should speak for the feminist movement. (Which is, of course, a very ‘second wave’ idea.)

It’s also relevant that of all the writers discussed here, Redfern and Aune are the most plugged into the on-line world where issues are debated in the blogosphere and campaigns are organized via social networking sites like Facebook. Reading their book is not unlike reading a blog, where the discussion is democratic, with all kinds of people contributing on a more-or-less equal footing, but also open-ended and politically diffuse, rarely resolving disagreements or producing definitive conclusions. It is feminism as a Big Tent, or a supermarket of ideas from which you take whatever works for you. In this respect Reclaiming the F-Word reflects the outlook of the generation it is aimed at: the authors report that ’70 per cent of the feminists we surveyed believe that the diverse range of opinions within feminism is a strength’ (p. 219).

Feminism versus ‘choice’

Crabby old bat that I am, I’d say that depended what the opinions in question were. And in other contexts, somewhat contradictorily, these writers would not disagree. All three books identify as a particular problem for contemporary feminism the way the old feminist language of ‘choice’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘liberation’ has been co-opted over time to serve non- or anti-feminist interests, especially those of consumer capitalism (the ‘because we’re worth it’ syndrome), and more specifically those of the sex industry (these days, no mention of pole-dancing would be complete without a reference to its ‘empowering’ or ‘liberating’ effects). We live in a society that equates freedom with individual choice, and elevates respect for choice to the status of a modern commandment (‘thou shalt not be judgmental about another person’s choices’). All the writers recognize that this attitude, the product of three decades of neo-liberalism, is a serious obstacle to feminist criticism.

Yet when they uncritically celebrate feminism’s ‘diverse range of opinions’ they are arguably buying into it themselves. Of course debate and disagreement have a legitimate, indeed an important, place in a progressive political movement, but there surely have to be limits on what qualifies as a ‘feminist’ view. If feminist means whatever someone chooses to define as feminist, what do we say to the argument that pole-dancing or plastic surgery can be authentic expressions of feminism?

One writer does manage to cut through the muddled thinking: Kat Banyard, whose words of wisdom had me punching the air as I read:

It is crucial that we don’t fall into the conceptual trap of confusing a process (choice) with feminism’s aim (ending the subordination of women). This produces a dead-end situation whereby almost anything can be justified as feminist simply by identifying that individual ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ were involved. …The question must always be: what impact does the practice have on gender relations as a whole? Does it help end the subordination of women—or does it further perpetuate it? That is the litmus test (p.206).

But while all the books apply Banyard’s ‘litmus test’ to certain ‘choices’ (e.g. working in the sex industry), it is instructive to consider what they do not feel able to apply it to. No one suggests, for instance, that marriage is an institution perpetuating women’s subordination. And despite criticizing the rhetoric of choice in relation to other bodily interventions like dieting and cosmetic surgery, no one takes up that issue in relation to transgender, which is surely a comparable case—it is a personal solution to the problems caused by one of the fundamental features of patriarchal social structure, its rigid binary gender system, and its effect is to further entrench that system (there’s no transgender without gender).

Another thing I found unsatisfying was the discussion of men’s choices and the collective interests they serve. All the books avoid presenting men as ‘the enemy’—or less crudely, suggesting that there is any fundamental conflict between men and women. Two thirds of the feminists surveyed for Reclaiming the F-Word believed that men could be feminists, and men’s active involvement in various campaigns is mentioned with approval by all the writers. For reasons I’ll come back to that would not be my own position, but it isn’t what really bothers me about the way men are represented: I’m more concerned about the treatment of unambiguously sexist men. For while all the writers are critical of certain male behaviours, they often portray the men who engage in them as totally lacking in agency—it’s as if they were just cogs in some mysterious machine, passively responding to the misogynistic messages beamed out by the sex industry or the culture at large.

Along these lines, Natasha Walter talks to the ex-editor of a lad magazine, who seems bemused by young women’s willingness to pose for publications like the one he used to produce, and says he would be horrified if his own daughters wanted to do so. Another man who describes himself as a ‘porn addict’ tells her he is disturbed by the degree of misogyny that has become normal in porn in recent years. Neither offers, or is seriously pressed to offer, any insight into why they are so eager to watch women being exploited, degraded and tortured. If it bothers them as much as they say, why don’t they just stop?

Similarly, Kat Banyard criticizes the teachers who do not intervene when boys use porn in school or engage in sexual bullying of girls, but their shoulder-shrugging (‘that’s just what boys are like’) is actually not a million miles from her own analysis, or non-analysis—since she does not interrogate their motives, one can only conclude that she too thinks boys do what they do because that’s just the way boys are.

Fighting back: is the personal still political?

A positive feature of all these books is that they don’t just bemoan sexism, they encourage readers to get out there and do something about it. Banyard suggests the reader could ‘write to your MP during your lunch break, set up a feminist society at your university, or arrange for your football team to hold a charity match in aid of a women’s refuge’ (p.208).  Natasha Walter proposes ‘complain[ing]… about an advertisement for a lap-dancing club placed opposite a school, or to the BBC about the removal of a respected female broadcaster’ (p.236).

These are all constructive suggestions, of course, but I did feel that something was missing. If the aim is to (re)build a serious social movement, that surely has to begin with raising women’s political consciousness so more of them will see a need to take action. Granted, campaigning can have a consciousness raising effect (though if it’s confined to activities like writing letters to MPs the effect is unlikely to be profound), but in the case of feminism I think there is always going to a need for something else. As Kat Banyard points out, women’s oppression is internalized as well as institutional. Campaigning to change the law or social policy is necessary but not sufficient; women also need to change ‘cultures, practices, and perhaps most difficult of all, ourselves’ (p.207).

When I talk to young women who have recently become involved in feminism, I am invariably impressed by the zeal and the skill they bring to campaigning—but I am also struck by their lack of the same ease when it comes to fighting the sexism that’s closest to home. Many would not feel comfortable acting on another of Banyard’s suggestions: ‘you might challenge a boyfriend who is planning to visit a lap-dancing club as part of a stag party’ (p.208). They avoid this kind of conflict with partners and peers because they are anxious not to be branded as man-hating viragos. The same sensitivity deters many young women from embracing feminist politics in any shape or form. ‘Reclaiming the f-word’ is clearly not an easy task.

Then again, it never was. If I ask what enabled me to call myself a feminist at the age of 18, and to challenge sexism without unduly fearing the consequences, I realize how crucial it was to have been involved in women-only small groups, where women shared their personal experiences and drew larger political conclusions. Not only did this facilitate action in the world beyond the group, it also fostered the kind of female solidarity without which many actions would have seemed to me, as they evidently do to many of the younger women I meet, too risky even to contemplate.

As the old slogan put it, ‘alone we are powerless, together we are strong’. It’s easier to tell your boyfriend why you are not going to shave your legs (or these days, your pubes) when you know six other women from your group are telling their boyfriends the same thing. It’s easier to speak up in a mixed group when you know you can count on all the other women in the room to support you. It’s easier not to be paralysed by the fear of what men, or people in general, might think of you when you have learnt to value the opinions and trust in the loyalty of your feminist sisters.

But developing that strength, that trust, that loyalty, is not just the automatic and immediate consequence of declaring yourself a feminist: it takes time and effort and commitment to working together. One of the most intriguing comments quoted in Reclaiming The F-Word is: ‘Everyone is born feminist: it takes a lot of social conditioning to make people otherwise’ (p.205). But while the 17-year old woman who said this has a good point—that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the subordination of one sex by the other—the fact remains that most adult women do not identify as feminist, nor actively protest against the structures and practices that subordinate them.

This surely underlines just how deep the ‘social conditioning’ goes, and how much effort it takes to undo it. So for me (with apologies for taking so long to get to the point) it is a flaw in all these books that there is no discussion of the kind of feminist political process which isn’t directly about campaigning, and no support at all for women-only groups.

In praise of the new optimism

Finally, though, I am glad that these books have been written and I hope they will reach a large and varied female readership. None of them quite matches up to my own fantasy of the perfect new feminist manifesto, but they all do a creditable job of exposing sexist realities and dismantling the argument that resistance is futile. They are all accessibly written (no abstruse theory or impenetrable jargon), and though they don’t pull any punches about the grimness of a lot of women’s lives, their emphasis on taking action to change things means they are not just relentlessly depressing. I don’t think anyone needs to read them all—there are many points of overlap between them—but  if you have a daughter, niece, colleague, student or friend who wants to read something about feminism, I would certainly encourage you to point her towards one of them.

On balance my vote would go to Reclaiming the F-Word, which is the most wide-ranging, the most globally-oriented and in many respects the most radical of the three. Also, though it isn’t ‘academic’ in the narrow sense, its broad range of reference makes it probably the most suitable for student readers who want to use feminist ideas in an academic context. Living Dolls may have more to say to readers who are bringing up (or working with) children, and it’s also useful for those with a particular interest in the new sex-difference science. The Equality Illusion, on the other hand, might be a good choice for the reader with a general interest in social and political issues, but no particular commitment to feminism. Whereas the others come across to some extent as preaching to the converted (or in Walter’s case waking up the lapsed), Kat Banyard has more of a mission to explain to the uninitiated what feminism is and why it matters.

What about the veteran radical feminist—will she learn anything new from these books?  Certainly I didn’t feel that any of them had a new Big Idea—something that will shape future debates in the manner of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in the 1990s or Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs in the noughties (to name what I’d consider two of the most important contributions made by post-second wave writers to feminist thinking). But that isn’t a criticism: as Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune point out, today’s feminists are not dealing with totally new problems, so they ‘are not necessarily going to come up with dramatic new feminist theories’ (p.13). My familiarity with the old feminist theories did not stop me from being interested in what these newer writers have to say, especially about issues where there have been significant new developments in the past decade (for instance, all three books are interesting on media/popular culture, and Reclaiming the F-Word also has an informative half-chapter on religion).

Finally, though, what I found both most instructive and most valuable in these books was not so much their analysis as their tone and general approach, which is practical, positive, and refreshingly free from navel-gazing. I can’t put it any better than the prologue to Reclaiming the F-Word: ‘it’s optimistic, rolling-up-your-sleeves-and-getting-things-done feminism’ (p.xii).

Of course feminists have been rolling up their sleeves and getting things done forever, but over the last two decades they’ve been doing it without much fanfare, and their optimism has been tested to destruction by the prophets of post-feminist doom. In that context, the arrival of three books blowing feminism’s trumpet and proclaiming its political rebirth does feel like some kind of new dawn. And even the oldest and most jaded among us can still get a kick out of watching the sun rise.

Kat Banyard, The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today (Faber, 2010).

Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune, Reclaiming the F-Word: The New Feminist Movement (Zed, 2010).

Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (Virago, 2010).

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