What are the lessons we can learn from the history of feminism over the last forty years?
It is often said that the aspirations and opportunities available to women have increased dramatically over the past century. Once excluded from university, educational achievement is now higher among young women than their male contemporaries. Female employment has soared, and the gender pay gap between men and women in their twenties has almost disappeared. Increased female earning power has also transformed gender relations in some households, driving a small but steady increase in the number of househusbands and men who share in the housework and childcare.
Yet accusations that feminism has largely benefited middle-class women have dogged the movement since as long ago as Emmeline Pankhursts prioritisation of suffrage over issues of maternity. Thus Jenny Turner has accused feminists today and historically of being 'mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble'.1 For some, feminism has not just ignored the concerns of marginalised women, but has actively undermined them. Labour MP David Lammy, for example, has argued that the Women's Liberation struggles in the 1960s and 1970s fed an individualistic 'my rights' culture that facilitated the rise of neoliberalism and is evident in the consumerist values among many young people today.2
This article explores current priorities for feminism, and strategies and agencies for change, drawing on research conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on how women's lives have changed over three generations. It argues that to construct a narrative of progress, or a broad argument about 'gender equality', is to ignore the ways in which the economic, social and political changes of the past thirty years have been experienced very differently by women from different backgrounds. Yet it also questions those who brand feminism as a sharp-elbowed, aspirational project, and argues that revisiting some of the tenets of second-wave feminism could provide inspiration for much-needed economic and political renewal.
Feminism, equality and class
After a long period during which feminism was distinctly unfashionable, new networks, books and campaign groups taking on discrimination and sexist attitudes have thrived in recent years, boosted by new technology and social media. Feminist protests and women's rights organisations have called for measures - often but not always legislative - to protect reproductive rights, prevent violence against women, and restrict access to pornography or the growth of lap dancing clubs. In mainstream political debates, the still disproportionate levels of economic and political capital controlled by men are often taken as evidence of an unfinished revolution. In the run up to International Women's Day in 2012, Chérie Blair and several other high profile women argued that gender parity on company boards is a defining issue for women's equality. Wider debates raged on whether legal quotas should force the issue.
Many politicians choose to appeal to women as a broad group with shared concerns around discrimination and sexism. According to former Conservative MP Louise Mensch: 'Most Conservatives would define feminism as supporting equal rights and opportunities for women. In that sense it is a movement of women, not of right or left'.3 Greater representational equality in positions of power will, it is hoped, challenge the perception of female capability, and provide role models for young women growing up in a male-dominated world; and each of the two main parties has dedicated 'networking' groups to support female candidates. For some, female power is also a model of political change. Head of the IMF Christine Lagarde suggested, only half in jest, that the financial crisis might never have occurred had Lehman Brothers been called Lehman Sisters, and boasted a more gender-balanced boardroom. …