When will male politicians take women's rights seriously?

Feminism appears to be back with a vengeance in the UK. Kirsty Styles reports from the UK Feminista lobby of Parliament, and asks how long it will take before the f-word that really rings true in our society is 'fairness'

Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes of the 2012 Olympics was that the women who played Suffragettes during the opening ceremony were inspired to seek out the modern women's movement. Some even took part in a feminist lobby of Parliament on October 24. They were joined by Emmeline Pankhurst's great-granddaughter - Dr Helen – her surname synonymous with the votes for women campaign in the early 20th century. She was one of more than 400 men and women who marched through central London with the campaign group UK Feminista to meet and lobby their MPs on gender equality.

Caroline Lucas MP, former leader of the Green Party, told the marchers it was thought by many that the 'job's done, it's all been sorted'. But this cannot be the case, she argued, when 60,000 women a year are raped in the UK, two women every week die at the hands of a partner or ex, and sexual harassment in schools and the workplace is routine. This also coincides with a 25 year high in female unemployment, and with women making up just 22 %  of MPs, 12.5 per cent of directors of FTSE 100 companies and 9.5 per cent of national newspaper editors.

Just a day earlier, the UK was found to have slipped down the league table of the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap report – moving from a pretty poor 16th to a worse still 18th– prompted by the decrease in women in ministerial positions following the recent government reshuffle from 23 % to 17 %. But on the day of the lobby, a landmark case was won in the UK’s Supreme Court, giving women from Birmingham Council back-dated payments for unequal wages.

In the two and a half years since UK Feminista was founded, another serious debate about what women want, have and need has begun. Even Cosmopolitan magazine has launched its own campaign to 'reclaim the word “feminism”’. Although Cosmo's airbrushed pages can be seen as a contributor to the negative way women view their bodies, its UK editor, Louise Court, told the Metro newspaper: “Young women at the moment, because of the economic situation, feel that they're in a worse position than the women who went before them. They've come out of university, they've got pretty big debts, they have not got the world that they were promised so they're finding it really hard to get on the career ladder.”

A survey by NetMums, the UK’s biggest parenting website, found that one in seven of its users identifies themselves as a feminist even though its founder, Siobhan Freegard, said that feminism is “aggressive, divisive and no longer works for women”, adding that the battle of the sexes no longer exists. UK Feminista wants to put feminism at the heart of politics. They brought together a broad coalition, including representatives from each of the major parties, to join the discussion before the march, all of whom outed themselves as long-standing feminists.

Unlike the recent Occupy protest, which has been lambasted for having no leaders or concrete motivations, UK Feminista is organised, it wants equality and it wants it now. The speakers who took to the stage before the march covered everything from women asylum seekers to sex education, and hearing all the statistics in the cold October light was pretty harrowing. According to Caroline Lucas, 43 % of young people in UK schools think it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive to a female partner. One in two think it is alright to hit a woman, and one in three think it is alright to force her to have sex.  20,000 women in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation. From the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandals, to the No More Page 3 campaign against naked women in the UK’s top selling daily newspaper, the oppression and exploitation of women are exposed in our society on a daily basis. So why aren't we confronting things head on?

An unnamed MP was mentioned by the New Statesman as saying that the student constituent who had come to talk about women's rights wasn’t entitled to a view on refugee women or abortion because she didn’t pay taxes and hadn’t had a baby. Not knowing the gender or party of this MP is unhelpful. But it is likely they were a man and therefore hadn't had a baby either. If MPs believe that people, and therefore even legislators, cannot contribute to discussions or make laws on issues that they do not have direct experience of – how can our largely male parliament be expected to take women's rights seriously?

Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, rather bravely took to the stage to say that her party had a commitment to women's rights. She urged us to think about self-employment and highlighted how many women had benefited from the government’s decision to raise the pay level at which people start paying tax – those women who are low-paid, having to work part-time and are feeling the cuts the hardest because of changes to working tax credit and Sure Start services. But her audience wasn't convinced. Perhaps this is because the Conservative Party is dominated by upper class males – Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson to name but a few.

Too few men take women’s rights seriously. A male national newspaper journalist told me he didn’t want to get involved with the feminist discussion. His highly privileged position, as he saw it, meant that people like him dominate so much of the public debate already that he wouldn't want to be seen to be trying to 'get on our thing'. But if we don't get people, men, talking about it, and agreeing with it, publicly, then can we really say that we are winning the argument? What affects women affects men. Thankfully some men do think through how to relate to feminism actively, starting with the promotion of women’s voices and the spaces where those voices can be heard.

Women also need to put themselves forward to get into Parliament to change the practices that mean that public policy doesn’t offer women fairness and equality. Noted political organiser Saul Alinsky said in his 1970s book, Rules for Radicals: “If you aren't satisfied, you be the delegates”. He continued: “Men don't like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience. A revolutionary organiser must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives – agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate.”

The revival of feminism has hit the mainstream, where writer Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a woman has become a bestseller. There was a lot of media coverage of the UK Feminista lobby. A photographer from one of the major news agencies told me it would give him a good picture to accompany that day’s Supreme Court ruling on equal pay. But many organisations were there to cover the lobby in its own right.

The more there are rulings like that made for council workers in Birmingham, the more normal men and women take to the streets to fight for equal rights, and the more women push against the tide for top city, political and media jobs, the more it may mean that it won't take another generation of Pankhursts to ensure that the f-word that really rings true in our society is ‘fairness’.

 

About the author

Kirsty Styles is a digital journalist and youth activist. She is also an enthusiastic dodge ball player and (very) amateur comedian. Kirsty has worked as a media campaigner for Oxfam, and has written for The Observer, RockFM and the Sunday Mirror. Kirsty is an elected youth member of the left-wing think tank Compass.