Institute of Arts & Ideas; ‘Rethinking Feminism’ April 2016
Institute of Arts & Ideas ‘Rethinking Feminism’ debate, Kings College London, in association with Unilever. 25th April, 2016.
First, I’d like to start by pointing out that there are probably as many definitions of feminism as there are people who identify as feminist.
For me, I understand feminism to be a global, political movement for the liberation of women and society, based on equality for all people.
However we may define it, what is clear is that feminism is in resurgence today. This is a resurgence that has been unfolding here in the UK since the early 2000s. Sometimes it is called a third, or even fourth wave. Feminist activism is visible once again, online and on the streets. Feminist commentary and political theory is also seen in the mainstream in ways that it was not before. Young women are often to be found leading this resurgence, finding a home in one of the oldest and most powerful social justice movements the world has ever known.
Alongside this rise it is not surprising that the anti-feminist backlash has also mobilised and grown, rightly sensing this latest threat to the fragile and defensive status-quo.
This backlash manifests in the base harassment of women that we see online and in public space also. The threats, stalking and intimidation of women who dare to be women and achieve; who dare to be women and speak their mind; who dare to take up space.
There are also the more insidious elements of this backlash, powerful as they are, hidden often in plain sight. This is the co-option of our movement, the gender mainstreaming, the steady dripping dilution of the radical and revolutionary political theory which forms the basis of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Feminism has become nothing more than a marketing ploy, advertising gimmick or soundbite. We are told that feminism is about buzzwords such as ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ and ‘having it all’. It is not these things. The act of choosing for example is a daily fact of life, it is not a feminist act. We may as well say feminism is about breathing.
In fact, that these sort of buzzwords are chosen to simplify and demean feminism in the first place actually show just how far we have to go and how much a real feminist movement is needed. What kind of world do we live in where a woman having a job, earning money and also having a family or caring for dependents including children, is seen as some sort of impossible dream and labelled as ‘having it all’? Many men have jobs, families and children and earn money without this being seen as some sort of incredible step for their sex class. Choosing where we work or how much we work, choosing whether or not to have children, choosing what space we take up, choosing which way we walk home, choosing whether we speak or not….these things are not some sort of privilege. They are fundamental necessities of life in a community and society; fundamentals that we know are so often denied to women around the world, including here in the UK. The fact that we cannot guarantee such basic rights is the very reason feminism exists.
The backlash against feminism can be seen in every sphere, in all elements of the media, advertising and the beauty industry for example.
What has happened is that our language of liberation has been stolen, bastardised, turned on its head and sold back to us under the guise of ‘empowerment’. This is an empowerment that funnily enough can be found in some new consumer good, a diet or new make-up or new fashion magazine. An empowerment that can be found for example in products like ‘Fair & Lovely’ the leading skin lightening cream, marketed in Asia and Africa and produced by Unilever. Proving that through the prism of capitalism, racism is just another bargain basement.
Another way the backlash shows itself is in the way we are now expected to laugh at our own oppression. Where old fashioned sexism has become some sort of nouveau retro-banter and harmless fun. As seen in adverts for products marketed at men, such as that teen-boy staple, Lynx, also produced by Unilever. As if we have supposedly come so far now as to achieve some sort of silent equality where all our struggles have been won, while yet miraculously the world has stayed just as it was and where feminists are the moaning prudes for pointing this out.
Feminism has not been won and is not over because feminism is a revolutionary movement for change, not just a changing of the guard. We certainly don’t want equality with unequal men and we understand that ultimately we cannot have equality in an unequal world. A world where wealth flows upstream, a world of gross and growing inequality that has brought us to the brink of a planet crisis.
We have ever more sophisticated technology and yet we use these skills to invest in the tools of killing, such as the planned £100billion renewal of Trident missiles, 1000 times more deadly that the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Our science can put humans on the moon, but it can’t seem to find a way to save the planet the rest of us are still on. It is surely vital that we focus technology on the preservation of life, instead of the eradication of life; lessons explored in schools of feminism such as Eco-Feminism, making the links between patriarchy and capitalism.
We are here today debating ethics and universal goals, and we must be able to talk about ethics that apply to all, otherwise these ethics mean nothing. It is dangerous for example when ethics stop at borders, borders of nationality, race, religion, sex or indeed species. Ethics are not something to be bestowed only upon certain peoples or certain species and yet denied to others who are ‘othered’.
Yesterday, the 24th April, marked the World Day for Laboratory Animals and the abuse and exploitation of animals in vivisection conducted by companies, such as Unilever, can never be ethical. There can be no human liberation without animal liberation.
All of these are feminist concerns because feminism is about building a better future for all life, indeed it is about whether we can even have a future at all. Feminism is indeed global, because justice is not.