Girls! New Feminism Needs You!

Article excerpt

For all women's successes, equality is not yet won, argues Natasha Walter, summing up the claim of her new book. Opposite, we throw open the floor to debate

Does feminism have a place in Britain today? Girls are doing better than boys at school. More women are in paid work than men. We have seen women striding into the corridors of power: among them a prime minister, a head of M15 and a Director of Public Prosecutions. We see young female singers talking gleefully about girl power and women taking control of all aspects of their lives: suing employers for discrimination, bringing up children on their own, or deciding not to have children at all. In this brave new world does a movement for women's rights have a place?

I believe that it does. Because beside women's growing freedom lies another truth, the truth of their continuing inequality. Women are still poorer and less powerful than men. More women than men live on benefits. Women still suffer abuse and violence at the hands of men from which they can find no redress; only one in ten of all men accused of rape gets convicted; only one in ten rapes is reported in the first place. Women are still in a tiny minority in the British establishment: they make up just seven in 100 university professors, four out of 100 general surgeons; four out of 100 company directors. And women may be working more, but they are still not reaping the rewards: 31 per cent of working women are paid less than 4 [pounds sterling] an hour, compared to 11 per cent of men.

In the last couple of decades feminism has often been seen as a debate that seeks to interrogate women's personal lives rather than a movement that seeks to right these concrete wrongs. This is partly the fault of the media; but some feminist writers and commentators, especially the American writers who have dominated feminist debate over the last few years, have concentrated on personal and psychological issues at the expense of social and political and economic problems. So feminism has often been seen as a debate only about the ways women dress or talk or make love, rather than as a movement that enables women to attack material inequality and abuse.

But women's real impatience with inequality is building up in Britain. Women in politics and journalism and community groups and all kinds of homes and workplaces are talking again about the need to get women out of poverty, to reorganise working life so that men and women can become equal players and to overhaul the way that women who have suffered rape and domestic violence are treated. They are looking for concrete changes throughout society.

This fierce, impatient feminism needs to be recognised. I call it the new feminism because it looks very different from the feminism of previous generations. For a start, it can no longer be confined to any kind of ghetto. It is everywhere. In the seventies feminism could be identified with a clearly defined women's liberation movement. It has since fragmented and splintered; but splinters of it are lodged in the hearts and minds of almost every woman in Britain. We should not be diverted by the fact that few women call themselves feminists into believing that feminist beliefs appeal only to a minority of women. In survey after survey the vast majority of women, especially young women, say that they would like to see more equality between the sexes at home and at work.

I would also argue that feminism today is not just a middle-class movement. It is often taken for granted that modern feminism appeals only to middle-class professional women. As I researched my book and set up interviews with women from all kinds of backgrounds and in all kinds of occupations, I was struck by the fact that real anger at inequality, real desire for change, and a real sense of women's growing potential, were being articulated by all the women I spoke to. I heard those ideas just as strongly, if not more strongly, from women who worked as cleaners in south London or as members of community groups in Glasgow as from lawyers or journalists or MPs. …