Is this a terrible time to be a feminist?
Our debaters: Rosie Boycott, journalist and co-founder of Spare Rib, and Zoe Margolis, author of blog and books detailing her sex life
Forty years ago saw Britain’s first national conference on women’s issues and the start of the modern feminist movement. Many women feel that we haven’t come very far in the intervening years and that there is still much need for a campaigning feminist movement today; that equality still doesn’t exist, that sexism is still rife. Natasha Walter’s recent book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, suggested that modern feminism is in crisis, while a three-part BBC4 series Women, which starts tomorrow, charts the rise of feminism and examines its impact on contemporary women’s lives. So has life actually got worse for women since 1970? And do we now need a feminist movement more than ever?
Rosie Boycott This is a very testing time to be a feminist. Things really haven’t worked out how we imagined when we started Spare Rib in the 70s. One of the great failures has been the inability of the government and women to address childcare sufficiently when other countries such as Denmark have solved that problem. Then there’s the lookism issue. Now there’s pressure on women of every age to be perfect, even girls as young as 11. The rise of lads’ mags is also terrifying; women these days are actually sending in images of themselves topless.
Zoe Margolis My generation has grown up blessed that we had the liberation movement. I’m 37 and feel so lucky to be a strong woman, to have the opportunities previous generations fought for. My mum was told the only work available to her was secretarial. I’m able to decide what job I want and won’t be turned away just for being female. I’m able to have an equal relationship with a man. Things may not have changed swiftly enough but we’ve come a long way.
RB I recently read a book called Half the Sky, which explained that the balance of power for women around the world has deteriorated. Despite the achievements, on the whole, certainly in the developing world, it seems women’s lives have got worse in the past 40 years.
ZM But you can’t change the human psyche overnight, it’s a slow process. We could have a feminist and a socialist revolution tomorrow, and you’d still have people in society that have grown up with racist, sexist or classist conditioning.
RB One of the tenets of women’s liberation was choice so I feel pleased when I read about women today making their own decisions and feeling confident about them. If you look at university grades, you’d think women would be the dominant force in the workplace. That they aren’t is certainly partly because the childcare system doesn’t work. But the psychologist Susan Pinker believes that men and women are actually coded in a different way, biologically different. She looks at many cases of women who bust a lot of different glass ceilings who then voluntarily said: “No, I don’t want this.” We’re not yet happy talking about that because we’re not sure if it’s a huge failure or a huge success for women.
ZM I’m very suspicious of the biological determinism route – it doesn’t help the feminist cause. I think there are more similarities than differences between the sexes. Natasha Walter’s new book, Living Dolls, shows that time and time again the science is just headlines, that you can’t actually prove these differences.
RB So why are there still so few women running FTSE 100 companies? That’s not a childcare problem because at that level you’ve shedloads of money for nannies.
ZM Maybe those women don’t want to have to deal with sexism on a daily basis. I used to work in the film industry and, as the only woman in a team or on a set, it was like 1950s sexism every day: everything from being felt up to verbal abuse to hearing “you’ll never make it”. The only way to deal with that was to say “Fuck everyone, I’m going to be tougher than all of you.” That’s exhausting, you have to be very confident. But it can be done. If women like me aren’t proving we can do it then there are fewer role models.
RB I can’t believe we are still having to fight that battle, though. On Spare Rib I remember writing that liberation is for both sexes – it was just as much of a gender trap to be a bloke at 18 looking at the prospect of working until 65, responsible for a wife and kids. We imagined that men would leap towards a less restricted role, but that hasn’t really happened. Most men still don’t want their power usurped.
ZM I’m more hopeful that there are men that want change, too. That’s partly why I started my blog. I loathe lads’ mags and women’s mags; they sexualise and objectify women and suggest you’re either a prude or you’ve got your tits out. I wanted my blog to brainwash guys in a different way and I’ve been surprised by the amount of men who come seeking titillation and then write saying, “You’ve made me question how I view women and sexual interaction.”
RB But women themselves have increased that objectivity because of this culture of lookism – whether it’s plastic surgery or masses of makeup. That feels like a real problem for feminists today.
ZM Yes, women are still growing up with the idea that the aim is to be desired, rather than to desire. I pitched an article to a woman’s magazine recently about masturbation and they refused it saying, “Couldn’t you just write a piece about blow job tips?” I was horrified at the idea that sex is still about men’s pleasure.
RB I’m really not convinced by the argument “wo men, have as much sex as you can because that’s proof of liberation”. Tons of sex doesn’t necessarily make you feel great.
ZM I’ve written a lot about having a very active sex life and I do think feminists have better sex because they are more in touch with their bodies.
RB The other thing that’s been lost is the idea of sisterhood – it now seems like an old-fashioned word. The original women’s groups were very supportive. There’s a feeling now that you ought to know how to be a woman, despite there still being tons of confusion about how to do it. I think that’s partly why you have these binge-drinking groups of girls; it’s a slight inversion of the sisterhood, it’s about trying to feel powerful.
ZM I grew up feeling very isolated in terms of my politics and I think that’s one of the reasons I set up my blog. The internet offers a space for women to express themselves. We might not meet up in person, but we now have a huge support network. A lot of women wrote to me saying they wanted to talk about sex and challenge society’s sexism and now there’s a forum and that’s a great feeling.
RB In the 70s, there was this real sense of excitement about the movement, about meeting up. I remember marching in Westminster and it was such fun. You also had a sense of trying to help all pockets of society. We worked for battered women, for instance, and it chills me that still, today, two women a week are killed through domestic violence in the UK – exactly the same figure as back then. That’s a political and social failure; that generally women have gone off into little groups of friends to look after their own ends. It’s too individualist.
ZM But there are lots of people doing great work. There may be a lot of women today who say they’re not feminists but if you ask them, “Do you want equal pay? Freedom from violence? Abortion rights?”, they say yes, and that’s what being a feminist is. We may be fragmented but we just need to find a way to unify us all.
Zoe Margolis’s new book, Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed, is out now