The Saturday Essay: The next generation will be feminists in all but name

Feminism still has a purpose, while men ignore domestic work and go unpunished for their sexual violence
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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman more than 200 years ago, people have been arguing that there is no future for feminism, and that argument has gained ground again in recent years.

After all, don't women have everything now that they have ever wanted? Aren't they free to fulfil their individual dreams and desires, at work, at home and in bed, without discrimination, violence or fear? Aren't they even overtaking men in their confident, bright, happy lives? You keep hearing that the inequality that still exists is just a faint trace of old injustice, and it will soon be washed away without the need for any particular effort on our part. And you hear that whatever inequality still exists is a sign that women are simply choosing still to live different lives to those of men - and why should they be denied that choice?

There is a kernel of truth in this idea that women have come so far and so fast that they don't need feminism any more. Feminism won't have a future in Britain unless feminists come to terms with the way that women's lives really have changed recently, for the better.

This generation of young women is beginning to lead lives that are very different from those of their mothers and grandmothers. And this is especially true of educated young women. Girls are surpassing boys at school and university and moving into the professions in ever greater numbers. That educational success often spills into increased confidence and freedom in the way young women live their personal lives. And women have all sorts of bright heroines to look at, whether they are so young that they are dancing along to the Spice Girls, or are looking at Mo Mowlam or Kirsty Wark or Madeleine Albright for pointers on how to live in the public eye without fear.

When I edited On the Move, a book of essays about the future of feminism which is being published next week, I found that it was the youngest women who were contributing to it who had the most optimistic voices. Take the example of one young British woman of Nigerian extraction, Caroline Abomeli, who is just 15 years old. "My opportunities are much better than my mother's," she says. "My mother was expected to stay at home and do all the housework and prepare to be a wife... that's now changed. I mean, my mum's always telling me that I should get my education, go to university, and then I can start thinking about getting married."

Or take 15-year-old Karen Loughrey, who says: "Whatever I want to do, I know that I can go and do it, regardless of whether I'm male or female."

But this optimistic vision of women's lives is not the whole truth, not by a long way. It ignores the dead weight of inequality that still presses upon women, and that will shape even the lives of this generation of young women unless a real effort is made to forge a more equal society.

Feminism still has a purpose today, because feminism cannot cease to exist while women are denied basic economic and political equality, and while men are free to ignore domestic work, and are unpunished when they perpetrate sexual and domestic violence. It cannot cease to exist when, for too many young women, there are no opportunities before them beyond poverty pay and lonely child-rearing.

If you want to know why feminism still has a purpose, forget the rhetoric for a moment, and just look at the facts. Sometimes it's hard to do that - hard and rather unpalatable to stare reality in the face rather than sticking with dreams and fantasies.

For a start, what does the reality of women's power look like? Women have almost no concrete power in, say, the political world, since even with the new intake of all those vividly dressed Labour women, only one in six MPs is a woman. They don't have any power to speak of in the business world either, since only four in a hundred company directors is a woman. Have women really chosen not to share power in Britain? Or have they found that the working culture in the most powerful places in the land still militates against their full participation?

When Caroline Abomeli, that confident 15-year-old, went out into the working world, she suddenly became aware of how this inequality might press on her own future. "I want to be a journalist when I am older," she says. "I did some work experience at a national newspaper and there were some women there, but the editors were all older men and I actually felt pretty intimidated by it. I was thinking, `where are the women?'"

Those who admit that women haven't quite realised the old dream of sharing influence at the top of society often argue that in other jobs they are equal or even overtaking the men. They argue that only middle-class professional women are asking for more equality, and that most women in society are happy with their lot.

But outside the professions, inequality presses even more heavily on women. Women who work as shop assistants and cleaners, as nurses and secretaries, are rarely paid on a level with men doing similarly skilled work. Women take home, on average, just 50 per cent of the weekly wage that a man takes home. The low-paid in Britain are almost all women: 31 per cent of working women are paid less than pounds 4 an hour, but only 11 per cent of working men earn such low wages.

When women have children, they find that the inflexibility of the workplace, and the reluctance of men to take on their share of domestic work, means that they lose out relative to men: a woman who has children loses, on average, more than 50 per cent of the money she would have made throughout her lifetime if she had not had children, but a man's lifetime wages are not affected by having children.

Do women really choose this heavy burden of economic inequality? Or do they find themselves trapped in a world of low pay and excessive domestic duties because of the outdated attitudes of their partners and their employers?

Those people who admit that working women haven't yet achieved equality will often argue that this inequality is still a pretty comfortable situation for women; that women are released from the responsibility of breadwinning, and allowed a more leisurely approach to their careers. They ignore the fact that for too many women inequality is not just about a lack of promotion, it is about poverty. More women than men live on benefits, both when they are young and when they are old. The vast majority of the 1.5 million single parents in Britain are women, and 70 per cent of them live on benefits, bringing up their children in real poverty. Their children show evidence of poor nutrition, low growth rates and reduced life expectancy compared to their richer peers. Can we bear to see the effects of inequality visited so harshly on these women and their children?

Feminism has not always been good, in recent years, at drawing women of different classes together. Aminatta Forna, a writer in On the Move, reminds us that middle-class women shouldn't feel that they have the luxury of giving up on feminism before working-class women have benefited from it; and Livi Michael, a novelist, argues that working-class women have often felt alienated from the old feminism that put more emphasis on women's relationship to their bodies than on their material equality. The view of Forna and Michael, with which I agree, is that women do not have to be identical to one another in order to work together.

Despite all the work that feminism still has to do, many people see little future for it, because they observe that it is no longer a unified movement with one banner, one voice and one demonstration. It is true that the women's movement has fragmented and splintered. But that doesn't mean that its force has dissipated. Splinters of it are now lodged in the hearts and minds of almost every woman, and man, in Britain.

You can hear feminist ideas from singers, journalists, MPs, activists, actors, lawyers, and women working unpaid at home. Feminism is no longer confined to one group in society. And, because of this, feminists can find themselves more powerful, working in the mainstream with people from all walks of life.

For instance, in their campaigns to ensure that men are brought to justice for sexual violence, the activists at Women Against Rape find that lawyers, MPs and journalists on newspapers including The Independent and the Daily Mail will take on their ideas for reform. And that can bring success - only six years ago, rape in marriage was made a crime, and in this parliament, measures are being debated to reduce the victimisation in court of women who have experienced rape.

Similarly, in their campaigns for more flexible and family-friendly working practices, the activists at New Ways to Work find that women in unions, and civil servants, are working along the same lines that they are, and - as the Government's new proposals on increased maternity leave and parental leave show - that can create real change. The fact that feminism has now fragmented and entered the mainstream does not mean that it has lost its power, its passion and its drive to change society.

Another great change in feminism, one that will gain ground in the coming years, is that men are beginning to see how feminism can spell opportunities for them, as well as losses. Equality in the workplace does not just mean taking power away from men, since it also gives them new choices. It releases fathers from the necessity of being the main breadwinner, and gives them the freedom to participate with the upbringing of their children.

Although men have been slow at changing their behaviour to take on domestic roles, those changes are beginning: young men tell survey-takers that they want to be more involved in parenting than their fathers were, and that they believe that domestic work should be shared between men and women. At the moment, rhetoric still outruns reality, but as the 20th century was characterised by the movement of women into the workplace, the 21st century will be characterised by the movement of men into the home. Now, feminism can be seen not as a battle between women and men, but as a movement in which both sexes can join together to move towards equality.

If we can characterise feminism today as an ideology that has been taken up by women and men in all walks of life, we still have to ask: are there real goals for feminism now? I believe that there are, and that they lie in four main areas. First, in achieving equality at work: measures such as the minimum wage, family-friendly working practices, child-care provision and stronger measures for equal pay must be brought in to create more equality between women and men at work. Second, in supporting women in poverty, above all increasing the income of women who are living on benefits with children. Third, in encouraging men in their participation in domestic and family life, a change that requires a push for parental leave from the top, as well as cultural changes from the bottom. And fourth, in protecting women against sexual and domestic violence, by providing more support services, and reforming legal practice so that more violent men are brought to justice.

If feminists aim for these concrete and unmistakable changes, our future will be immeasurably enhanced. It's easy to despair, looking at the obstacles that stand between us and equality. But if you look back over the last 100 years, the changes that have occurred in women's lives seem astounding - from the movement into the workplace, to the revolutions in sexual behaviour and family life.

Is it so difficult to imagine that, in another 100 years, if we work to move forwards, society will have changed again? It is striking that many young women now are taking on the ideals of feminism, whether or not they call themselves feminists.

As 15-year-old Karen Loughrey puts it: "To me, feminism is about finding equality between men and women in all areas of society, from work to family situations. I definitely care about feminism, and I think a lot of people still do."

`On the Move: feminism for a new generation' edited by Natasha Walter, is published by Virago next Thursday, price pounds 9.99