Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism Today

Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism Today

Article excerpt

Speaking rather from the sidelines, since it is some years since I've been involved in women's studies or active in any feminist campaign, I am puzzled by the absence today of any feminist political movement with a clear profile. On the one hand the idea of 'post feminism' seems to have taken root to the extent that irony can make any excess of tabloid vulgarity or sexist remark acceptable, while the shibboleth of 'choice' makes it difficult to criticise anything any woman does, from embracing religious fundamentalism to wearing high heels. Yet however much we value diversity, it would be difficult to deny that the culture of fragmentation and individualism has eroded the possibilities for solidarity and the search for unifying political programmes, not only as regards women's issues, but generally.

The emergence of second wave feminism was a response to the highly contradictory nature of Western societies in the 1950s and 1960s: the feeling that education was a panacea for economic and social problems, yet an uncertainty about what to do with educated women; in the UK (where I live) the collision of a welfare state based on principles of citizenship and egalitarianism with the development of a much more fully consumerised society. At the same time, national liberation movements and socialism of a sort were gaining ground across the world. The very fact that revolutionary struggles had been won, gave hope. Socialist feminists whether in or out of leftwing parties and groups were very critical of those male dominated organisations, but that did not prevent them from working strategically both with political parties and organisations and with the State to promote change in the public spheres of welfare, politics itself and the legal regulation of personal life. Even cultural or radical feminists who saw men, not capitalism, as the 'main enemy', and who perceived male dominated organisations and the state as both equally patriarchal, preferring to create their own structures from outside, even these women still believed in left democratic ideals of equality and the redistribution of wealth.

One of the first principles of feminism then was: start from your own situation. Women's liberation was not some kind of social work activity - helping women less fortunate than oneself; it involved first and foremost an acknowledgement that the educated and in many ways privileged but alienated and frustrated women who became the first second wave feminists, were themselves - ourselves - oppressed and discriminated against. That was true, and is still true today. In spite of the advances made by women in many areas of employment, and despite some high-profile women at the head of business and arts organisations, women across the board are still earning less than men. Even in academia, where, theoretically at least, notions of equality are more highly developed than in many other areas, British female academics earn only four-fifths of the earnings of the male colleagues.

The insistence on starting from your own oppression was meant to reveal that women had interests and problems in common. In the 1960s, individual women were seen as competing with one another for the attention of men; hence, to overcome this, the later much criticised slogan of 'sisterhood is powerful'.

Consciousness raising necessarily emphasised personal experience and subjectivity. The first step in understanding one's situation was in confronting this felt reality. That was to lead to a second stage: the recognition that problems were collective, not individual. Next came an analysis of this situation and how it came about, leading to the final stage, which was collective political action to change the situation. As time went on, though, feminism sometimes became more a study of subjectivity than a programme for its change, with the result that the other famous originary slogan of the 19703: 'the personal is political' could sometimes come to mean that anything personal was political. …

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