Lynn Beaton 2013
A reflection on the feminist movement
“A coherent community is an integral fabric, woven together by projects: not a quilt of multi-colored patches, but a rich and moving tapestry of diverse intertwining threads.”
There is a popular view, perhaps even a dominant view, that young women no longer identify as feminist and this is the reason that the feminist movement has lost momentum and is no longer viable. In extreme cases it is argued that gains won by earlier feminists are being lost. There are two concepts here that I'd like to begin to address. The first is that young women do not identify as feminist and the second that the movement is less viable or has lost momentum. Both of these assertions are so limited in their understanding of the reality that they are false. Both rely on a view that social movements are finite moments in history, separated in time and space as isolated entities. Both views are boosted by a dominant ideology that downplays any social change that might challenge it.
It is easy to accept the view that today’s young women are not identifying as feminists. The media loves to promote it and we are constantly bombarded by information that challenges the aims and objectives of feminism; images of women objectified as sexual objects or victims of violence. And for those women, like me, who were activists in the ‘second wave’ it can be galling to watch young women lapping up the gains we fought for while refusing to identify with our struggles to win them, and refusing to take the struggles forward. We fought for women to have equal access to wealth, jobs, goods and services and the gains we won in all these areas are abundant. Many of us gave many years of our lives so future generations of women would not have to experience the oppression and lack of entitlement that we had experienced.
This view is based on a false assumption that ‘second wave feminism’ was a mass movement that involved the majority of women in the developed capitalist countries. This was never the case. Those of us who were active in the movement were a tiny minority of women and were treated like a lunatic fringe by the majority. Men in general knew instinctively that we were out to challenge their entitlement to dominance in all things. Their responses were crass: we had no motivation except that we hated them; were jealous of them; mostly because we were a bunch of unattractive freaks who couldn’t get a man. What is less understandable perhaps is that many women adopted that idea too. It was more frequent to have women say, often with smug pursed lips: ‘Oh I'm happy with the way things are’, than to have women say: ‘Oh yes I agree with your aims’.
But while that was the case, even when the movement was most visibly active, women were taking on the gains. For example in Australia one of our early gains was to have a state pension for single mothers. Almost instantly statistics revealed that what was happening was that women were quick to accept the gain. More women were keeping children born outside of relationships rather than giving them up for adoption, and large numbers of women took their children and left unsatisfactory relationships because there was at least minimal financial support available.
On another level women were gaining access to areas that were previously unknown and many of those women were oppositional to the aims and objectives of feminism, yet that didn’t stop them utilizing the gains. Two well-known examples of this were Maggie Thatcher, the British Prime Minister and Ita Buttrose, a magazine editor in Australia. Interestingly, while the very existence of the first woman Prime Minister of the UK was clearly a feminist gain, it’s occupant was antagonistic to the feminist movement, but most of her opponents, including active feminists, not only denied her status as a role model for the movement, but many denied her womanhood – ‘oh but Thatcher’s not really a woman’. Buttrose is now celebrated as a feminist icon, but at the time was seen as a woman who had become prominent as a defender of the status quo. Nevertheless she herself set precedents for women in the Australian newspaper industry, had a strong sense of herself as a career woman and a sense that women wanted more than housekeeping, child rearing, cooking and beauty tips.
From my standpoint there are at least as many, and possibly more young women who identify as feminists than there ever were and this has been consistent through the decades of the eighties, nineties and naughties. What is also true is that there are many more young men who identify as feminist and support the movement. For some reason we expect that because nearly all young women in the developed capitalist world have benefitted from the gains of feminism, they should identify with the movement. Yet there never seems to have been a parallel between numbers of women who utilize gains with those who identify. Although I would argue that the proportion of women who identify has been growing consistently.
What we were was loud and our activism was highly visible. The attitudes we wanted to change were so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it took years to sort them out. Consciousness raising groups are now laughed at, but they were an amazing concentration of discussion and debate in searching for understanding both on a social level and a personal one. After all as somebody said at the time: it took a lot of social and personal dredging to even understand our situation fully. Women live their lives in the most intimate of relationships with their oppressors.
The sixties and seventies were decades of enormous struggle around the world and the women’s movement was a part of that. National liberation struggles, civil rights struggles, labor movement struggles, the massive anti-war movement were all prominent in those decades. In the decades that followed the struggles lessened – largely as a result of the ascendancy of neo-liberal economics and politics.
Still if we look at the political struggles that exist today – women are a prominent part of them all, labor movement struggles, national liberation struggles, student struggles, civil rights struggles, the Occupy Movement, struggles against austerity, all have women active at every level and often in prominent and leadership roles. My observation is that in most cases these women identify as feminist, and in many cases they struggle alongside men who support them. One prominent example has been the mass support around the world for Pussy Riot in their battle for civil rights against the Putin regime. Often the struggles are about the rights of women. For example in recent years no-one can fail to have noticed the world outrage at the plight of Malala Yousafzai the Pakistani schoolgirl shot for demanding education for girls; or the outpouring of grief and anger that an Indian student could be gang-raped and then thrown off a moving bus; and in Australia the support for the women caught in the so-called Skype scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
In Australia, both the ultimate glass ceilings were broken in 2010 when we had our first female Governor General and at the same time our first woman Prime Minister. Attitudes to these women were positive. In the case of the Governor General I haven’t heard a single doubt of her right to be there or criticism of her capabilities, rather there has been an unspoken national pride that we have broken that glass ceiling. In the case of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the situation is much more complicated because of the controversial manner of her acquiring the job. The ensuing personal attacks on her involved horrendous sexism and misogyny. This was interpreted by some as proof that feminism was losing ground and yet it created a national and very public debate about feminism that has never been seen in Australia. The public debate was mirrored by a million private debates. Men as well as women expressed outrage, horror, disappointment. I'm not arguing at all that sexism has been stamped out – far from it, but the number of people who overtly supported Gillard through that time, as a proportion of the Australian population, was much greater than the number of women who were involved in, or who overtly supported, the second wave feminist movement.
This movement generated changes so enormous, so widespread that not only have they continued to take effect, they have formed a base on which new struggles can be built. While there was a period of heightened activity in the ’70s and early ’80s, the difference between then and the years that followed is only the amount of publicly audible noise – it’s likely in fact that more gains have been made quietly since then. The ‘movement’ fought successfully for a basic change to ideology. To challenge the gender roles in society is to challenge the most basic tenet of identity. The first thing that is identified in any baby is its gender and from that moment a raft of gender identifiers are applied; name, colors of clothes, aspirations of parents etc.
When I became active in the women’s movement there were almost no women doctors, lawyers, journalists, managers, school principals, tram drivers, train drivers, pilots. The list could go on and on. Women were not allowed to drink in the biggest and most active part of any hotel – the public bars. Our opinions were considered unstable, emotional, lacking rationality. It was openly acceptable to say out loud that women’s role was in the home, babies and kitchens were our domains. Underlying all of these restrictions on women was a dominant ideology that insisted that women lacked the ability to successfully engage in the public sphere, they were destined for the private, domestic sphere.
The ideology of the women’s movement has conquered the dominant ideology so now it is generally accepted that women have the potential to develop capabilities with men in almost all areas of life. Those who still say that women are lesser beings than men or are unable to take on equal responsibilities, or aren’t entitled to equal shares of the wealth now speak outside of the dominant ideology. The impact of this ideological change lies underneath the massive changes to social organization that have been taking place ever since. In every workplace, in every home in the advanced capitalist world attitudes to women and their capabilities have changed. These changes in attitude have not been limited to the ideas of women, but to men as well, who have been dragged, often kicking and spluttering, along behind the women. The changes have not been confined to the developed capitalist world but have clearly impacted everywhere. It is also evident that those who want to maintain the old values of men’s superiority have to assert their ideas with ever increasing force and violence.
This change in ideology has far-reaching effects. Almost all aspects of life are affected by the expectations associated with gender. The women’s movement therefore has affected every aspect of life and the range or scope for further developments is far from exhausted. The empowerment of women has encouraged them to want more and during the last three decades gains have continued to be fought for and won.
Given the enormity of its aims, the project for the emancipation of women has existed as a conscious and active movement for over two centuries. It has seen myriad forms and stages, it has seen some leaps forward and some battering back, but the project has been a steady continuous movement towards its ultimate goal of creating the conditions which give women the capabilities to participate fully in all aspects of their societies. The project of women’s emancipation is a road which began long ago as a narrow and perilous track. Each development has improved the road but the second wave feminists built the highway we now travel.