On paper we’ve achieved equal rights. Perhaps that’s why feminism is seen as such a dirty word or, at least, the reason why some people seem to struggle with the term (including the world’s most powerful woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel). To be a ‘feminist’ is to support equality, human dignity and self-determination for women. What could be objectionable in that?
For some people, however, the pendulum has already swung too far in the opposite direction. For example, girls already perform better than boys in school, including achieving the best exam results. They should, in theory, also have the strongest start in their careers. Yet this is, unfortunately, often where the success stories ends. Whether it’s in terms of salary, the division of jobs, or career opportunities, men are doing better. Only one in three management positions in the EU are filled by a woman and she will, on average, earn only three-quarters of what her male counterpart earns. These aren’t the only problems. Sexual abuse and harassment in the public sphere, at work, and at home has only recently been brought to light by the #MeToo debate.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Anna, who argues that feminism may have been important in the past but that it’s work today is largely finished. She accepts that there are still problems with equality in other parts of the world, but in her opinion there certainly aren’t in Europe.
To get a reaction, we put Anna’s comment to Ann Widdecombe, a former British politician in the Conservative party and author. Does she agree with Anna that gender equality only really needs to be fought for outside of Europe?
Yes, I would agree with that 100%, particularly given how today’s feminism has developed. Now, where she is absolutely right there is to make a distinction between the West and the rest of the world. Now the rest of the world, you still do desperately need of feminism – or in some of it – but not in the West. And the thing that saddens me is the battles of feminism in the seventies – of which I was part – was all about ‘give us the same opportunities as the men and we’ll show you we’re as good, if not better.’ Now, it’s not about ‘give us a level playing field,’ but ‘give us a playing field that’s tilted towards us.’ Things like all women short-lists, for example, or quotas on boards. That’s almost as if we’re saying ‘Oh dear, after all these decades, we couldn’t make it; now we have to have special measures.’ That, to me, is an admission of failure and it’s not true feminism. To me, feminism has always been about competing with a man on equal terms, not having your path artificially smoothed.
To get another perspective, we also put the same comment to Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist writer, filmmaker, activist, and Executive Director/Publisher of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York (CUNY) from 2013 to 2017. Would she agree with Anna’s point?
No, I think it’s pretty obviously false. But I also understand how frustrating it is to have to operate – there was this moment in the ‘70s when feminism globally, and especially in the West, had this tremendous impact and was really visible. That sort of crystallised our view of what feminism is and certainly the world has changed for women a ton since then: in terms of their integration into the workplace, in terms of men being equal partners in the home – or closer to that – and then most profoundly in terms of how we look at gender. For younger person, gender is so much more on a spectrum or a non-binary approach.
I think the way we talked about feminism 40 years has some validity today, but it’s absolutely a different conversation, with different words, but because we’re still using this word that has symbolic valences of the past, I think it can feel frustrating for people to talk about the world as if nothing’s changed, when things have changed profoundly. So, I think both things are true. I absolutely that women aren’t even – in all sorts of way of measuring it – on equal footing with men.
And vice versa. There are things where men are unfairly policed, and women have more freedom: I think in the realm of emotions and tenderness and things like that; the ability to be seen as legitimate as a caregiver. That’s an area where women are seen as legitimate as a parent or a caregiver and men are not if that’s their main job.
So I think there are all sorts of work we can do as a community and as humanity, but this word ‘feminism’ is really elastic and I think you, as an individual, calling yourself a ‘feminist’ have to know what it means to you. It isn’t this sort of static entity outside of us, it’s this personal, elastic term that you take on and make meaningful in your life.
Next up, we had a comment from Julian, who sees the threat of a reactionary backlash against feminism from today’s populist parties. He argues that sexism and discrimination is still ever-present in Europe, and that we should be careful not to take our achievements for granted. Is he right?
How would Ann Widdecombe respond?
Well, I’ll always go with not taking anything for granted. That’s a sentiment that I applaud whatever I am looking at. But, you have that word there, ‘sexist.’ Well sexism now is being defined just simply if somebody says ‘that is a sexist comment.’ Well, it may be nothing of the sort. It’s almost like we’re looking for questions of offense, looking for grievances, when they’re not really there anymore.
And actually, if you ask me about gender inequality, I would now say it’s the men who’ve got the real grievance. I mean, if you take for example, all women short-lists for Parliament – let’s just take that as one example – then you’ve got a man who’s grown up in a constituency, educated his own children there, used the local health services, knows it backwards, but can’t apply because it’s reserved for a woman. Now think what would happen if that the reversed were approved. Men are certainly at a disadvantage in some of the legal positions. We’ve seen it a lot recently, whereby a man is named the moment there is an investigation, doesn’t even wait until he’s charged; the woman remains anonymous throughout, even if she’s falsely accused him. Men are at a disadvantage in the family courts, where the presumption is nearly always with the women. So, don’t tell me we have gender inequality against women. If anything, it’s now against poor guys.
And what would Jennifer Baumgardner say to the same argument?
A political backlash to the surge in feminism right now? In the United States, we are definitely weathering something that looks like a backlash right now, in terms of who our leadership is – not just the President, but also Congress. The big surge in the movement right now is in some ways a reaction to our leadership. I find that this supports what your questioner said.
We’re in this moment of profound threats and now people aren’t feeling so complacent about feminism, but we’re in a worst spot than we would’ve been had we not been so complacent in the first place, where we said, ‘Well, I don’t love everything about Hillary Clinton.’ But it would be meaningful to have the first female President. It’s also kind of progressive. We made these choices as a country that reveals our underlying misogyny and our underlying lack of faith in equality. Now we’re dealing the reality of that.
Finally, we had a comment from Catherine, who is fiercely opposed to feminism. She argues that feminists are really “anti-female”, and that they “pretend” there are no differences based on gender. She thinks feminists tell women they can “have it all” and be loving mothers while pursuing a successful career, when the reality is that they must choose. Does she have a point?
What does Ann Widdecombe think?
I think she’s got a point, and the point is this: it is now regarded very much as a second-class choice if you decide to give up economic activity and become a full-time mother. Not just while the children haven’t yet gone to school, but you might want to be a full-time mother until they’ve left school. That is now regarded as very much a second-class choice; a lot of pressure is put on women, as she rightly says, to ‘have it all.’ It isn’t possible to always have it all; very few women do manage that. I think feminism should relax a lot more; it should be about choice, not about taking the path feminists think you ought to take.
And how would Jennifer Baumgardner reply to Catherine?
I’m a mother and it’s one of those things where I’m quite sentimental about it. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I also know my own relationship with my own mother is so profound. I think so much of how – and this might be a quite French feminist way of looking at things –we as human beings develop throughout our lives has to do with our first relationship, which is with our mother: How did they play out? Was it nurturing or not? Did she have to sacrifice much? There’s all kinds of things that become embedded in our understanding of what it means to be a woman or a person. It comes from that relationship, the profundity of that relationship.
So, I don’t that it’s anti-mother, but certainly that relationship is a fraught space, because there was a time when that was only role that was listed up for woman. To this day, I do think if you don’t have kids as a woman, there’s this kind of ‘raised eyebrow’ at you that you didn’t fulfil your destiny, or something’s weird about you. So the fact that feminism was trying to create a space for women not to be mothers can be misunderstood as demeaning mothers. Some puncturing of the mystique of the concept of motherhood had to happen to create any space for women not to choose that.
Do we still need feminism? Has equality between the genders been fully achieved in Europe today? Or is inequality and discrimination still deeply entrenched within society? Why is there so much hostility to the term “feminism”? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!