issue 227 - January 1992
We've only just begun
Is feminism dead? Many would have us believe so.
Vanessa Baird checks its pulse - and looks ahead.
There was an mood of heady optimism in the buildings of the United Nations in New York and Geneva today, following the sacking of 94 per cent of staff holding top positions in the organization.
In Zaire sixty per cent of secondary schoolboys were kept home until further notice. The same happened in Mali, Pakistan and several other African and Asian countries.
In Canada male lawyers, university teachers and other professionals were scratching their heads, wondering what to do about their sudden 20 per cent pay decrease.
Crumpled grey suits and the sounds of the menagerie were oddly absent in London's Houses of Parliament after 88 per cent of MPs lost their seats. The same happened in São Paulo, Penang, Tunis, Canberra and Washington.
In Bangladesh, boys tucked into breakfasts substantially smaller than yesterday's. And their fathers prepared the meal,, served other family members first, washed the children, cleaned the house, went out to work and got no free time at all.1
This is how 1992 might have started had it been decided that at the stroke of midnight a worldwide programme of sexual equality would be put into practice - and that the best way to start would be to put males on the same footing as females: same work, same pay, same power, same privilege, same access to services.
Now, I'm not proposing this as the feminist agenda. Feminism is about radical change - not just a rearrangement of the status quo.
Nor does this snapshot of a 'level playing field' take everything in. There is the matter of several millennia of patriarchy, which have made normal all manner of violence, abuse and exploitation.
But this scenario throws into perspective the claims some people now make that the main battles have been won, that we are now living in a 'post-feminist' age in which women enjoy full rights.
Drops of freedom
It isn't difficult to see why these claims are made. Feminism has made some spectacular advances in the past 20 years. Anti-discrimination laws have opened a whole new range of jobs to women (especially the middle-class and educated) and given them far greater economic independence. The number of girls going to school has shot up, worldwide. Women almost everywhere have more control over the number of children they have thanks to contraception. Sex has got better as women exert more choice and ask themselves what it is they really want. Pornography and sexism in language have been challenged, with varying degrees of success.
But these are drops in the ocean. The world is still ruled by men - and that's bad news for women. Men make wars. Women make up most of the refugees displaced by war. Men shape financial strategy. Women make up most of the world's poor. Men run the wheels of polluting big business - women search for firewood and water in degraded environments. Men structure the world of work - women carry the double burden of work inside and outside the house.
But hang on. Most countries now have anti-discrimination laws. In 1979 the United Nations General Assembly voted to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. So what is holding back women? If they are not getting ahead is it maybe because they don't want to?
Perhaps. Centuries of being viewed as inferior to men has left women, collectively, with a pretty low self-image. After all oppression does not exist to encourage or propel its victims forward.
Laws may be fine in theory, but society and culture continue to discriminate against women - as Laeticia Mukurasi discovered. Her country, Tanzania, has exemplary sexual equality laws but she was the only woman manager in the state company for which she worked. She was good at her job, better qualified than her male colleagues.
The first serious blow came when she and her husband split up. Her male bosses ordered her to leave the company house that went with her job - but allowed her husband to remain. Then, with an IMF austerity plan used as the excuse, she was made redundant.
She appealed. 'I may have lacked alliances, a godfather and an informal network, but I had the law there to protect me,' she said. The battle lasted four years. She and her children would have become completely destitute had it not been for friends who donated food. All her friends advised her to give up. 'A woman can't win,' they said. But she persisted and was finally reinstated.
'When a woman decides to break the chains of her oppression,' she observed, 'she discovers she is fighting against a significant portion of the patriarchal superstructure in which men gang up together and use their positions against her as a single woman in order to destroy her. In other words it becomes a political struggle and she does not have the advantage of an informal network that is at men's disposal.'2
We are only at the beginning of the road to equality - and getting laws in place is just a first step. Yet a backlash is already in full swing. The strategies vary, but the message to women is the same: 'That's enough. You have gone too far. We need to go back to something solid, safe, traditional. With us men calling the shots.'
Religious fundamentalists - both Islamic and Christian - are well known for their anti-women's rights stance. Both try to use the law to restrict women's freedom. Islamic reactionaries seek to restrict a women's freedom of movement and right to education. Christian reactionaries attack reproductive rights.
But there is another more subtle form of backlash. It goes something like this. 'Feminism has failed women badly. Instead of liberating them it has actually created a new set of problems. Professional women in the West are particularly ill and unhappy,' write the experts in scientific journals, popular books and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Liberated women s ailments include 'burnout', 'stomach cramps', 'infertility' and 'eye-twitching disorders'. Diagnosis of cause: 'too much equality. What the women really want to is to be conscientious housewives and proud mothers'.
Writer Susan Faludi has detected in this 'a kind of pop culture version of the big lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women's position have actually led to their downfall'.3
In fact, surveys show that 75-95 per cent of women in the US think feminism has improved their lives.3 The things that bother them most are female poverty and the rise in violence against women. Hardly the products of too much equality: rather the universal outcome of universal inequality.
But if we are still so far from equality why is the backlash happening now? 'Backlashes occur when advances have been small, before changes are sufficient to help many people,' says psychiatrist Dr Jean Baker Miller. 'It is almost as if the leaders of the backlash use the fear of change as a threat before major change has occurred.'3
The F - word
Now, one way of making sure that the majority of women are kept down is to elevate a few, carefully selected individuals, and allow them to enter the magic circle of power and privilege. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - admiringly called 'the best man for the job' by Ronald Reagan - was a celebrated example. Once in place she consolidated her power and ruled by supporting not challenging the male institution that kept other women out.
Recently I read, on the financial pages of a daily newspaper, what seemed like a classic feminist success story. Two women executives were running their own, highly successful, all-women consultancy business. But midway through the interview one declared that she and her business partner were not feminists. 'We are ordinary people who are very sociable and good at mixing,' she said. I could only guess at what her image of a feminist was...
This story reminded me of an incident in Peru a few years ago. I was with a couple of women from Manuella Ramos, a feminist organization based in Lima doing outreach work in the shanty towns. They worked with groups that had not come into contact with feminism and we were making a second visit to the 'mothers' club' in Fundo Marquez. One of the women, Laura, was explaining to me how she avoided using the word 'feminist' until she really got to know the group. It might put them off, seem too threatening or too middle-class.
During the meeting the shanty-town women's conversation ranged from housing problems, domestic violence, child-birth, divorce, and organizing the soup kitchen. At the end of the meeting one of the women turned to Laura and said:
'There's something that has been puzzling us. We were wondering... Are you... um... feminists?'
Laura shifted uncomfortably. 'Er... yes, as a matter of fact, we are'.
'Then why didn't you say so! We are all feminists here!'
So what is feminism? I think it is about trying to live your life as you would wish rather than as men or male society would wish. It's about believing that women are human beings, different to men but with equal rights. It's about supporting other women - and that's crucial. More theoretically, in the words of writer Marilyn French, feminism is 'the only serious coherent and universal philosophy that offers an alternative to patriarchal thinking and structures'.4
Feminists first suggested that the personal was political; that what happened in the bedroom had everything to do with what happened in the boardroom - and that the same sex was in control in both places. But they also argued that the revolution against patriarchy was one that challenged the very idea of power; that pleasure was a superior principle around which to organize society.
This is what makes it radical. It means that women who get into positions of power or influence in their workplace or union or group or political party cannot stop there. They must start working from within to feminize the institution. That means getting rid of the male nonsense about power and competition with all its hierarchies and creating a system that is more productive, positive, supportive, co-operative.
Creating a radically new politics that does not mirror the methods and strategies of the oppressor is no easy task. Since the 1960s women all over the world have been developing new ways to achieve it, ways that are female rather than male. From Rio to Reykjavik difficult subjects like rape and incest have been brought out into the open. Refuges for battered women and survivor groups have been set up. Racism has begun to be confronted, taken on board, discussed. Lesbianism has come out of the closet - especially in the West - and become an option rather than a taboo and even a political statement of independence. Some women have become separatists, creating their own communities. Consciousness-raising groups have helped many thousands of women to identify their oppression - to find ways of challenging it and take control of their lives.
But all is not wonderful. There have been splits and divisions within the women's movements of many countries. Most famous - and long-lasting - was that between Socialist-Feminists and Radical-Feminists. Socialist-Feminists emphasized women's economic oppression. Capitalism was primarily to blame for oppression of women. Only a social revolution could liberate them. The Radicals, on the other hand, emphasized family and personal oppression. Men oppressed women because by doing so they defined themselves as men, and superior. For any real change to happen there would have to be a revolution in personal politics first.
The Radical Feminists accused the Socialist Feminists of letting men off the hook. The fact that they were so closely aligned to their male comrades meant that they were not really feminists at all. The Socialists Feminists saw the Radicals as lacking in class analysis. Their purist, 'more-feminist-than-thou' stance was typically middle-class, they claimed.
There was no resolution to this conflict - just stalemate at a time when women's rights were under fire from both the New Right and religious fundamentalists.
So where is feminism in the 1990s? One important change is that there is a greater willingness to accept that there is no One True Feminist Faith but many different feminisms. Yours may not be mine, mine may not be yours. But each counts, each is important, each is doing something.
Has feminism lost its momentum, though? Not in Saudi Arabia where women recently broke fundamentalist law, got behind the wheels of cars and drove through Riyadh, incurring the fury of police and gangs of stone-throwing men.
Feminism is very much alive in the streets of Bombay, London, Tel Aviv, São Paulo, Lamaca, Seoul and Washington as I write, with women taking part in an international protest against domestic violence and demanding it be an issue at the 1993 world congress on human rights.
It's alive in Eastern Europe as feminists face up to some of the 'benefits' to women of Western freedom - an upsurge in pimping, pornography and sex tourism. It is also quietly alive in Soweto as a woman leaves her husband to prepare his own supper while she goes to an ANC meeting.
There is a growing sense of urgency, among many feminists; of the need for action rather than reaction. So poet June Jordan exhorts us:'Let us not sit inside our sorrows, let's not describe things to death. My orientation is activism. Other than that it is like a kind of vanity or a decadence... '5 Veteran Civil Rights campaigner Angela Davis stresses the need for feminist projects as opposed to feminist definitions. The big challenge for the future, she says, is 'making the transition from consciousness to action, from theory to practice... While the theoretical work is very important the work of the activist will determine whether or not we move onto a new stage. Everyone should learn to become an activist on some level, in some way.'6
The time is right for action. We are at a stage, worldwide, when women's rights could leap into the future - or be thrust back into a Dark Age. There is a window of opportunity. The question is, can women hold that window open and help each other through to the next stage, or will it be slammed shut in their faces with the force of the backlash?
Keeping it open may require a lot more international feminist solidarity and consciousness than we have seen so far. There are urgent things to do - like writing to the Egyptian Government to protest the recent closure of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA) set up by Nawal El Saadawi in 1985. She and other feminists are locked in a court battle with the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs which is trying to outlaw AWSA and transfer funds to the male-headed Women of Islam organization.7
Feminism is large, its strategies varied. The politics of the bedroom have begun to change. So have those of the schoolroom. But what feminism has not managed to change is the politics of the boardroom - be it the boardroom of the multinational corporation, the United Nations or the political party.
To get in there and to change the way it operates; to change the agenda; to subvert patriarchy at its strongly-fortified but weak and irrational heart has, I think, to be the challenge for feminism in the 1990s. It can be done, but it will require feminist action as bold as the theory.
1 Based on information from World's Women, Trends and Statistics, United Nations, 1991 and WIN News, Women's International Network, 1991.
2 Laeticia Mukarasi tells her story in Post Abolished, The Women's Press, 1991.
3 Susan Faludi in Blame it on Feminism, Mother Jones Magazine (San Francisco), September/October 1991.
4 Marilyn French, Beyond Power, Jonathan Cape, 1986.
5 June Jordan interviewed by Pratibha Parmar, Feminist Review No 31, 1989.
6 Angela Davis interviewed by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Complexity, Activism, Optimism, Feminist Review No 31, 1989.
7 Letters of protest to be sent to the The President, Kubba Palace, Cairo with copies to embassies and OEHR, 17 Aawan Square, Mohandessine, Giza, Egypt.
This special report appeared in the we've only just begun - feminism in the 1990s issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.