What is feminism for?

Sunday 30 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

When higher education minister David Willetts claimed earlier this year that the ‘feminist revolution’ was probably the single biggest factor for the lack of social mobility in Britain, he provoked a ferocious response. Nevertheless, many commentators, women included, agreed there have been downsides to the advancement of women, especially for working class men. More than the prejudices of a Conservative male politician, the spat revealed a wider contemporary ambivalence about feminism, and even what it means. The stereotypical Bluestockings and dykes in dungarees have undergone a makeover in recent decades, with ‘third wave’ feminists often wearing heels and lipstick, and arguing modern feminism is about being who you want to be. Where feminism used to focus on the problem of ‘patriarchy’, and shared causes such abortion rights and equality at work, many newer feminists balk at grouping women together under any shared banner.

Some old-school women’s libbers bemoan the new fluffy feminists’ lack of radicalism. But the legacy of traditional feminism stands exposed as a rag-bag of contradictions. Equality legislation at work is said by some to cause as many problems as it solves. The feminist-sounding pronouncements of politicians like Harriet ‘Harperson’ Harman are often seen as patronising and divisive. The traditional feminist focus on male power and violence has led to what has been termed ‘victim feminism’, with women presented as in need of special protection. And while the‘lipstick’ feminism of recent years urged us to move beyond worrying about sexist images and focus on political equality, one of New Feminism’s original architects, Natasha Walter, admits in her latest book Living Dolls, ‘I was wrong’. And what of birth control and child-rearing? Many feminists express concerns about the supposed draw-backs of postponing pregnancy. One strand of contemporary feminism couches its concerns in ‘maternalist’ language, stressing that natural birth and breastfeeding are empowering and paid work is no comparison to the satisfaction of motherhood.

Such confusion does not mean feminism is a spent force. Professor Sarah Miles told the UK’s first Feminism and Teaching symposium in April that feminism is ‘both under attack and in resurgent mode’. Neither does any resurgence seem limited to the nostalgia of an older generation; new initiatives like UK Feminista are attracting many young women to the cause. But which cause? Feminists always had some differences when it came to ideas about abortion, motherhood and pornography: but can they now agree on anything? Does third wave feminism represent a liberation from the crankiness of the old feminists - or is it just a form of intellectual bimbo-ism, slapping a feminist badge on personal preferences? Was feminism ever an ideology that could change the world? Are men the problem, or not - and has anything really changed?

Anna Percy
feminist performance poet; member, Stirred Feminist Poetry collective; organiser and facilitator, live poetry events and writing workshops

Dr Nina Powell
doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore

Helen Reece
reader in law, LSE

Cathy Young
contributing editor, Reason magazine; author, Ceasefire! Why women and men must join forces to achieve true equality

Zoe Williams
columnist, Guardian; author, What Not to Expect When You're Expecting

Jennie Bristow
senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict; co-author, Parenting Culture Studies

Produced by
Dr Nina Powell doctoral research fellow, National University of Singapore
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