Why Labour still needs the f-word

8th March, 2013 1:42 pm

I have always been a big fan of the f-word. For me, being a feminist is a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want equal political, social and economic rights for women? Right? Right??

But far too many women I know, women in their 20s and 30s, otherwise bright, articulate, socially aware young women, are reluctant or just point blank refuse to identify themselves as feminists. “Oh” I will say “but you ARE a feminist”. “Don’t you believe in equality for women?” I ask “Don’t you CARE about equal pay” “Don’t you realize how we got the VOTE??”

The responses to my rants fall into two categories. The first view feminism as not for them; as an old fashioned, out dated concept supported only by angry, bra-burning, men-hating women (a stereotype which grew out of a tiny branch of the most radical form of feminism but which has dominated and been used to trivialise the debate ever since).

The second are those who just think that in general terms the whole equality for women thing is something, well, of a none issue. Perhaps we don’t really need feminism that much anymore. Things are more or less equal. Aren’t they? Maybe we shouldn’t rock the boat.

But I think that boat is now finally being rocked. Young women are standing up and being heard. Through campaigns like 1 Billion Rising, they are protesting against violence across the globe. Everyday Sexism, a Twitter campaign encouraging women to speak out, has seen over twenty five thousand share their stories, from harassment in the work place to intimidation and violence on the street. No More Page 3 is bringing them together to say that casually displaying a woman’s breasts in the most widely read newspaper is an objectification too far and, well, not ok actually.

I think the reasons these campaigns are engaging women, predominantly young women, in a new way is firstly because they are focused on actual specific nameable problems, things that women recognize as issues that they and their friends and other women around the world face on a daily basis. Secondly, they provide a platform and through social media give women a means to vent their anger at these injustices in a way they feel will be accepted and where they don’t fear being stigmatized or laughed at.

There’s something in the sharing of stories and coming together with thousands of others who’ve had similar experiences and hold similar views that is fresh and exciting and a new way for women to bring about change. And the good news for Labour is that – from Stella Creasy to Oona King. Harriet Harman to Yvette Cooper – Labour women are right at the heart of this new form of campaigning.

But this is no reason to be complacent. Many young women engaged with these campaigns do not identify themselves as “feminists” and are often still reluctant, nervous or downright scared to speak up on issues they face in their everyday lives. The imbalance of power is still very real. From violence and abuse to harassment and objectification to the more mundane stuff; the casual patronizing remark, the accidental hand on your rear, the never getting quite as far as your male peers, the stuff that’s not always easy to identify and often very hard for women to speak out about. These are all reasons why we need to do more. And that is why we still need feminism. We need to be able to name these injustices and inequalities and the movement that unites us against them.

This new form of activism shows there are plenty of young women who are angry, who want something to happen, who want change. There is real potential here. And Labour needs to tap into this.

With 31% of its MPs being women, Labour is doing considerably better on representation than the other parties (Tories are at 16% and LibDems a woeful 12.5%) but lets be honest there’s still a long way to go.

Labour needs to do more to ensure women’s voices are heard and that women are represented at every level of the party. It must continue to be at the heart of these campaigns and it must go yet further in speaking out on the issues that this new wave of feminists care so passionately about.

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  • NT86

    Feminism in principle is important, but in reality I’d say that it is more so for women in the developing world.

    You’ve partially addressed some of the preconceptions of feminism in your article, but the British take on it in the last 20 or so years leaves a lot to be desired.

    On one hand you have the Harmanesque take on feminism which is patronising and makes women seem like they need positive discrimination to get ahead in life. I’ve long been an opponent of AWS and the quality of some of the female MP’s coming out of that system in the past justifies my opposition. The flipside is radical feminism, which is simply another term for organised misandry. Writers in the Guardian and other left wing papers like Julie Bindel sum up radfem nastiness quite well. Not only do they loathe men, some of them seem to have a problem with heterosexuality (Bindel again, but this was influenced by ‘theorists’ of the past like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) and rather terrible views about transsexuals.

    I believe in gender equality, but western feminism needs to become more inclusive and less condescending to begin with. Labour is already seen as being better at women’s issues that the Tories, but it must change the narrative on it. That said, I very much admire Stella Creasy’s involvement in One Billion Rising. That is the type of solidarity which the f-word needs to demonstrate more of.

    • Raging Leftie

      I think I disagree with you about AWS – in an ideal world where there was a perfect meritocracy we wouldn’t need them but that world is a long way off…

  • Raging Leftie

    Feminism is a dirt, dirty word. If you believe the right-wing press then feminism is all but shrivelled up in the corner and died a slow and painful death. Feminists are so often portrayed as lesbian man-haters – but all we really want is true equality sadly so many people believe we’re already there and whilst we in the West have achieved some measure of success – in the Global South they need feminism more than ever.

  • postageincluded

    Since the 70s there’s been no shortage of “women in their 20s and 30s, otherwise bright, articulate, socially aware young women” who are feminists. The real dearth has been in women who are working class, or over 40, or haven’t been to university. If you can correct that imbalance you’ll be flying.

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