Don't pension off feminism now, young woman

The spirit of the suffragettes may have waned in the Nineties, but equal rights are still a mirage, says Julia Brosnan

Early one morning recently, six old ladies dressed up as suffragettes chained themselves to the railings outside Manchester town hall in protest against their meagre pensions. I went along, notebook in hand, bearing the assuredly temporary concern of one who is several decades short of retirement. My main aim was to congratulate them on their magnificent publicity stunt (long dresses, funny hats, menacing chain collection, and all over 70), so it was a surprise to find myself thrust upon a journey into the meaning and purpose of pre-millennial feminism. After all, they'd only donned a few pinafores.

Let me rewind a few years. I grew up when girls were women and the local consciousness-raising group expelled anyone who got it wrong. Life in the late Seventies/early Eighties was something of a forerunner to Mrs Merton - one long heated debate. Not about the pros and cons of feminism (we were sorted on the fact that patriarchy was the problem) but the minutiae of particular strains.

Then a new Eighties generation arrived, including many who would have been expelled from a whole range of groups but for the fact they had no interest in joining. By the time the Nineties got going, everyone was a girl decked out in industrial-strength lipstick and reinforced bras. Meanwhile the anti-feminist backlash kicked in. The men's movement claimed society was overrun with feminists (witness all the High Court judges, MPs, etc) and women-only car parks. (Where are they? Has anyone ever seen one?) And post-feminism came up with the original idea of putting down women in favour of men. Both have been deconstructed by a new generation of feminists, the results of which look remarkably similar to what was going around 25 years ago. But thinking you've seen it all before is but a sign of age - which brings me back to the railings.

"Do you know the story of the suffragettes?"asks Gertie, stalwart of several pensioners' action groups.

I give the sort of patronising "Naturally" that I hope no one gives me when I hit the twilight zone. If they do, I'll punch them.

The ladies then dive into their own heated debate on the subject, and it dawns on me: I am completely ignorant. All I know is the cartoon- and- slogans version involving railings and "Votes for Women" badges. "The suffragettes fought to improve the terrible working conditions of women who were often in low-paid, temporary, unsafe work, just as they are today," says Joan, president of the British Pensioners and Trade Unionists Association.

"The pensions issue is relevant because many women are still in non-pensionable jobs and need career breaks. This is why talk of private pensions is so worrying: many women of our generation couldn't even afford the full stamp and are now amongst the poorest in our society."

Hearing these pensioners talk about the brute facts of existence threw the anti-feminist backlash into even sharper relief. How can feminism be "finished" when many of the things that its forerunners fought for over 100 years ago haven't been achieved? And does anyone still care?

I went looking for some women in their early twenties to sus out their heated debates. I found Kat in the students union. Is she a feminist? "No. I'm not into dividing people up like that. I'm more post-gender and pansexual." Pardon? "I don't want to judge people according to their gender or sexuality."

Does it work in practice? Kat tells me that after living with a girl friend she flat-shared with someone who happened to be male. She was amazed: "It was horrible - he was everywhere. He took up so much space and he never did any housework." Didn't this change her views on feminism? "Oh no," she says. I make a mental note to ask her again in five years' time.

Then I meet Beena. "I do believe in equality but I wouldn't call myself a feminist because of the taboo," she says. Really? "Oh yes - the media stereotype of a woman who's bitter and not getting on in life is very powerful. The word 'feminist' ties a noose around your neck, although I do think the media handle women's issues very unfairly - they're in the dark ages." Did she discuss this at college?

"No, the word 'feminist' never came up - not in the three years I was there." I find this a bit incredible.

"Students were more concerned about paying off their loans. And being Asian, race was a bigger issue for me." Like Kat, she isn't sure whether she'll vote: "I haven't ever voted. I've lost faith; I don't think things will change."

Feeling about 105, I bump into Jo, who turns out to be a modern- day suffragette: "I'm proud to call myself a feminist. As a young women with a career, I think we should have equal opportunities (which we haven't at the moment) and I also think that young working- class women with babies should be integrated back into the education system and given a chance."

Do many of her friends share her views? "Oh yes. I became a feminist at 16 through a group of strong friends at school (a girls' grammar) and a teacher who taught women's history. I did a project on the suffragettes and I'm very proud of what they did - that's one of the reasons I will always use my vote."

In her world, at least, things seem to have come full circle. Jo, who is also well up on the whole "post" thing (modern, gender, feminism etc), tells me that Camille Paglia is absurd. I tend to agree. After all, what has she ever said about Serps?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £30,000+

    £16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Project Coordinator / Manager

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

    Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

    £40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

    Day In a Page

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy