Feminism Today: A Roundtable Discussion

Editorial article @ Anticapitalist Initiative, published 5 August 2012

In devising this debate on Feminism Today, the editorial team wanted to put the question of women’s liberation and its predicaments to the contemporary Left. In this day and age of Merkel and dildos (an unusual association of women’s emancipatory symbolism, perhaps established here for the very first time), it might seem to many in the West that sexism is based solely on random bigotry. If women can now ‘buy their own diamonds and buy their own rings’, as pop girl band Destiny’s Child so brilliantly put it, then lesser pay and professional condescension towards women must surely be confined to ‘bad’ employers, misogynist companies still living in the dark ages. But while it is true that the status quo of the male breadwinner and the patriarchal family is increasingly undermined, it would be a huge fallacy to affirm, even in the ‘First World’, that feminism and women’s liberation are no longer necessary.

If anything, today, in a time of austerity and financial disarray, the ‘women’s question’ is all the more pertinent. Just like other post-War victories (our public education and health services, for instance), so too is the terrain gained in the struggle for women’s rights now at peril. The stats speak for themselves. Two thirds of the British public sector, the one the Coalition government is openly attempting to decimate, are women employees. And out of the £18 billion cuts in benefits, about 70% will be directly affecting women. Across the board women are being hit the hardest. In the longer term, the social wage which so greatly benefited women by alleviating the burden of domestic care for the young, the elderly and the sick, in the form of the NHS and welfare state, is being rapidly dismantled.

Importantly, however, today sexism and women’s oppression is subtle and perniciously inserted in our social structures and social consciousness. One could even venture in saying that the class divisions prevalent in sexist attitudes are all the more entrenched, albeit disguised in the normative postmodern idea that class distinctions no longer exist. As an example of the ubiquitous problem that women still face I’ll describe a scene that occurred next to me, while writing this piece in a quiet beach bar.

A young, foreign woman sits with her white, much older, male companion. As her phone rings, the man, clearly wealthier than her and noticeably covering all the expenses, goes into a jealousy fit. It must be another man, he argues. The woman, in despair, explains that it was her alarm. At his stubbornness she insults him, then begs him to look at her phone for proof. The old man pulls a tantrum, mumbling things at her I cannot hear but that clearly upset the woman, as she starts crying a few minutes later. She implores for him to take her home, while the man insists in staying, evidently in some humiliating process that does not remain unnoticed by the other costumers. At one point he raises his voice and says, “I don’t admit this talk from any woman”. The scene goes on for well over an hour.

What does this sad but commonplace anecdote show? Here is a, perhaps working class, immigrant girl with an older, wealthy man, being incontestably the victim of not only his abuse, but also that of social prejudice (judging from the looks and facial expressions of surrounding costumers). Let us deconstruct the scene: why is a young, attractive female willingly accepting the violence (as well as the delicacies) of such a truly unattractive, rather rude, misogynist pig? Why does she beg to leave and not just do so herself?

The situation she finds herself in is not uncommon. Powerless in the face of jealous rage, she is relegated to a subordinate position by the intrinsic, female-oppressive characteristics of the social system she finds herself in. Her beauty is an entry pass into higher social echelons (or, at least, into the lifestyle of such echelons), but then only at the price of her subjugation. Her class and her gender put her in a literally humiliating position. Were she not ‘selling’ herself emotionally, she would probably be doing some barely paid, menial work, ageing rapidly, bearing the brunt of a life full of insecurities and disheartenment, and certainly giving a pass at Thursday afternoons in a bar, sipping white wine as she is now. So what can we do or say about scenes like this? What can the Left argue about the standardisation of the ‘sugar daddy’ phenomenon? And can newer movements, such as SlutWalk, reclaim the feminist banner and really shift the paradigm?

Importantly, what is the present day relationship between the personal and the political – and how does class affect the various issues and problems facing women today? On an international scale, what should the response of the Left be to the issue of women’s oppression in the global south? How can we navigate that complex web of imperialism, gender, religion and class without inadvertently reinforcing other forms of oppression on women?

Second and third wave radical feminists often blame the male gender per se. In other words, men are to blame because they are men. The penis and the masculine identity are the roots of the inequality, the driving force of patriarchy. In fact, this idea has often perpetrated some of the average, liberal views and their perception of women as gentler, more stable and emotionally intelligent beings. Men are handicapped from the start and, thus, their relegation to secondary social structures to benefit feminine leadership would, they say, do us all a favour. If we had more women in government and business, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Liberal left feminists, as well as some of the ‘new left’ and the Marxist-libertarian wings, push for a softer version of the ‘women & class question’. Ethnicity and sexual choice are brought to the forefront together with gender equality. Feminism is sex-positive, gender is irrelevant and/or self-defined. Society, in turn, can be reformed through lobbying within existing governmental and social structures. To some this includes allying yourself to conservative or neo-liberal feminists in order to achieve policy changes that can improve the lives of women in certain countries or localities.

The ‘old’ left sees change in the form of class struggle and socialist revolution. Class above, yet not precluding, gender is the catalyst of oppression or emancipation.

Are these discourses contradictory? Can we merge them into an effective and affective synthesis? Can we give that young girl in the bar the tools to leave that horrible man? And, furthermore, can we create a society in which that scenario no longer reproduces itself and where it would be utterly unacceptable, maybe even unthinkable? Those are some of the questions we will try and answer here, with the Feminism Today roundtable. For our part we can only hope that, if this is not entirely possible, the forum provides the first steps in that direction.