After post-feminism: Pursuing material equality in a digital age

Published Tue 19 Nov 2013
Energised by highly visible, media-friendly issues of sexualisation and representation, new 'fourth-wave' feminism must not dismiss concerns of structural inequality as relics of a previous age. Melissa Benn calls for a coalition of new and old to press for greater economic fairness.
Juncture 20.3: Winter 2013

Feminism is dead, long live feminism. After nearly two decades of so-called 'post-feminism', a period of relative public quiescence on issues of gender inequality, protest is back, big time. We are now witnessing a real resurgence - if not a mighty explosion - of both feminist activism and argument. According to Helen Lewis of the New Statesman: 'It feels as though there's a greater energy to the feminist movement now than I've experienced before in my adult life; there's a critical mass of women who just won't shut up about the things they care about.'

Over the past two to three years, there has been a rapid growth of UK feminist grassroots groups. The newer organisations - among them Object ('challenging the sexual objectification of women'), Women for Refugee Women, End Violence Against Women (self-explanatory), Everyday Sexism (a terrific Twitter campaign that chronicles the daily harassment and violence faced by women), No More Page Three and Expert Women - have joined longstanding organisations like the Fawcett Society and Women in Journalism to field a strong media and political presence.

In common with second-wave feminism - the political and cultural movement of the late 1960s and early '70s - this wave is being led by young, educated women. This time around, however, young women are fed up at the contrast between the myth of growing female power and the reality of the demeaning sexism they perceive all around them.

What's most striking about this new wave, however, is how predominantly cultural the concerns are: how issues of representation of women or the lack of representation of women or the grossly distorted representation of women have taken top billing, with violence against women coming a close, and connected, second. Almost every week, one can tune into or read a debate about the oversexualised representation of girls in everything from Disney films to young girls' clothing, music videos or computer games. Young feminists are doing important work alerting us to the horrors of sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence, as well as the real indignities of lapdancing clubs appearing on so many of our high streets.

To a generation reared on the speed, wit and myriad potential connections of social media, much of the protest has been concentrated online - but there, too, dwells the risk and reality of nasty counterattack. Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully persuaded the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on the new £10 note, was forced off Twitter, albeit temporarily, by rape and death threats against her. Other prominent women, from Stella Creasy MP to Cambridge don Mary Beard, have suffered similar abuse. When I spoke with Perez at the Labour party Women's Conference earlier this year (one of the largest gatherings of political women in recent years, with a distinct revivalist atmosphere) the banknote campaigner was cheered as she rose to speak, particularly by younger women in the audience.

But the revival of contemporary feminism is not just confined to a clutch of campaigns. Its energy has created, or revivified, a wide range of journalist voices, an explosion of new magazines and web ventures, and a resurgence of student feminist activism.(York University, for example, now has three separate feminist groups on campus.) It has injected new boldness into more politically neutral spaces, such as Mumsnet and the Girl Guides, who recently endorsed the No More Page 3 campaign. And it has clearly influenced a generation of female educators concerned at continuing, and fresh, constraints on young women's lives and choices.

But how, if at all, does this new fourth-wave energy connect with more material concerns? We know from the Fawcett Society and others that women have suffered a 'triple whammy' as a result of austerity and recession: losing jobs at a faster rate than men, suffering stagnant wages and taking the 'hit' from often-savage welfare cuts. While researching my recent book, what most struck me was the continuing relative poverty of so many women. Half of all women over the age of 50 in the UK work part-time, and the majority of them earn less than £10,000 a year. Women working full-time still earn up to £5,000 less a year than an equivalent man.

In some ways, it is not hard to understand why the cultural should take pre-eminence among fourth-wave feminists. The question of body image and the pressures of a highly sexualised and commercial society are bound to be felt more sharply by those for whom both body and self are, literally, still forming. Add to this the fact that any campaign that concentrates on sexualised images of women's bodies, rather than the more 'worthy' subjects of pay or pensions, will always gain media airtime.

But there are deeper reasons for the demise of a materialist feminism. While a small but significant percentage of women (as described in Alison Wolf's The XX Factor, and dramatised in more journalistic fashion in books like Hanna Rosin's The End of Men and Liza Mundy's The Richer Sex) have joined the professional and managerial elite of their countries, they have also pulled away from less-skilled women in dramatic fashion. There is a rapid widening in income between graduate and unskilled women, a far greater gap than that exists between similar men, as first revealed in an IPPR report earlier this year.

For someone like Alison Wolf, this growing gap reduces the chance for cross-gender solidarity. Instead, it offers ambitious young women a chance to join the elite through highly competitive and supposedly meritocratic educational systems. Implicitly, then, the relative lack of earning and public power of the majority of women are considered an expression not of direct discrimination but either of nature (women choosing to do less paid work and care for others more) or a kind of personal inadequacy (poor career planning, or a lack of will).

But for those who reject this analysis, what are the possibilities for reviving, of continuing in some new form, campaigns on more material questions? I believe we are making a grave mistake if we fall into the trap, encouraged by the media, of sidelining the intractable problem of 'structural inequality' as a dreary or irrelevant struggle of the past or the concern only of the disappointed older woman. Rather, we should see the potential that fourth-wave feminism offers in terms of reanimating these vital issues and creating new alliances.

Several developments encourage me in this regard.

First, it needs to be said that not all of the new feminism is concerned solely with issues of representation or sexualisation. The campaigning group UK Feminista has taken up the cause of the living wage; young feminist journalists such as Laurie Penny have been vocal in support of Occupy-style critiques of capitalism; fourth-wave activist and writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has written powerfully on class and care issues. Add to this the voice of young policy analysts, like Tess Lanning - formerly of IPPR, now working for Ed Miliband - who have written of the new settlement that is needed if we are to extend feminism to working-class women: a system of affordable childcare, more flexible working, greater domestic democracy and higher pay for so-called 'women's work'.

Second, the impetus for change may come from unexpected sources, including those top women who Wolf and others believe to have been cut free from quasi-utopian 20th-century gender politics by the economic opportunity. Yes, Google chief Sheryl Sandberg's bestseller Lean In could be read merely as a bible of soft corporate individualist feminism, but it contains a sharp recognition of how hostile traditional capitalism is to 'family life'.

Similar arguments have been put forward by prominent US policy adviser and academic Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently argued in an influential article for The Atlantic magazine that there is an inherent clash between capitalist/corporate work rhythms and the imperatives of authentic personal relationships. Such is Slaughter's passion that she was led, at one point, to reproduce, in all-caps, the demand that we 'MAKE WORK SCHEDULES MATCH SCHOOL SCHEDULES'. When 21st-century US corporate feminism starts to sound like second-wave socialist feminism, something is afoot, and we need to build on it.

Austerity and recession offer potential political openings here. Is it really progress to educate and train a group of top women to live the alienated, work-all-hours lives that their fathers lived? Might this group not be better placed to push, at a time of restricted economic growth and high unemployment, for a more rational and human distribution of working hours and pay, and a greater integration of work and personal life?

Third, the work of Sandberg and Slaughter, both of whom address themselves to younger women directly, is just one high-end example of a new intergenerational conversation, of alliances that are springing up everywhere and could be a real force for change. While researching my book, I was powerfully struck by the number of older women, from former education minister Estelle Morris to broadcaster Miriam O'Reilly, who successfully pursued an age-discrimination claim against the BBC, keen to use their considerable experience to benefit younger women. These voices join long-established networks and a community of academics, policymakers and politicians who broadly share a feminist worldview (of a less dramatic variety to the fourth wave) but have been plugging away, through the post-feminist decades, to promote and sustain institutional and economic change in a variety of unglamorous ways.

At this year's Labour Women's Conference, Harriet Harman specifically identified this generation of older women (in their 50s and 60s) who have accrued much political and personal experience, remain keen to improve the lives of our political 'daughters', and are perfectly placed to push through real political change.

There are a number of issues which could be tackled by the new alliances. Warwick University's impressive Future Track study, examining the experiences of the 2006-09 university generation, has conclusively confirmed that employers still appoint young men to higher starting salaries than young women, despite similar qualifications. A campaign against this example of gender discrimination could spark useful debates on the transparency or otherwise of pay schemes in the private sector and, increasingly, the public sector.

Similarly, feminists have been successful at getting offensive 'lad's mags' out of public view. Why not turn that campaign around in a clever way, and say 'We don't want to see distorted representations of women in supermarkets; we do want to see the women who work in these shops treated properly'? They could work with a rainbow of groups from Citizens UK to living wage groups to trade unions to campaign for better pay, conditions and protection for vulnerable female service workers.

A third example: given that one feature of fourth-wave feminism has been the inclusion of men who share certain social goals, why not develop these cross-gender alliances? Writer Rebecca Asher argues that we need a genuinely grassroots parents lobby to exert pressure on government to make parental leave policy and flexible working more robust and meaningful, particularly for fathers.

Finally, we can all learn from the wit and creativity of younger campaigners. One of the most convincing voices in the poverty debate is food writer and former single parent Jack Monroe, whose blog A Girl Called Jack blends recipes for those on a low budget with powerful arguments against austerity measures. We need more websites with similarly vivid accounts of young women who are long-term unemployed, stuck in poor quality accommodation at the mercy of private landlords, or suffering catastrophic cuts in benefits.

My instinct is that most fourth-wave feminism would be open to deploying their current media profile and fresh-minted sense of injustice to press for greater economic fairness. The technology is there to link Twitter to street protests, thinktank reports to parliamentary procedure. Played right, an amalgam of long-established institutional and personal expertise and the energy of the new rebels could present an exciting challenge on the gender equality front.

This article will appears in issue 20.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published in December.

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