Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. So said Simone de Beauvoir, surely a patron saint of
feminism. If you’re confused or challenged by her claim, read on. In this brief over-view of feminism, I hope to introduce a subject that is as controversial as it is difficult to define.

Many people associate the term ‘feminist’ with almost entirely negative attributes – ‘strident’, ‘aggressive’, ‘bra-burning’, ‘man-hating’… These ideas are themselves revealing of the attitudes towards women that continue to shape twenty-first century society. Women are not supposed to be angry or assertive, to enter the public sphere and speak about the discrimination that they experience on a regular basis by virtue of their gender. If you doubt this claim, have a look at the invective that is directed against the Twitter campaign @EverydaySexism that provides a platform for women and girls to document their daily experiences of sexism, harassment and assault. Then there were the extreme antifeminist reactions to Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to have a woman featured on bank notes in the UK. This harmless initiative led to a vicious internet campaign, including threats of rape and murder. It is hard to resist the conclusion that, in spite of gains in some areas, feminism has failed. We still exist in a world where the lion’s share of kudos and power is in the control of men, whose authority has simply shifted from one form to another. Patriarchy used to be about women promising to obey men in marriage; now it’s about who controls mega-corporations, access to technology, political power, and ultimately, the brute force of military might.

In its simplest form, feminism is no more than the quiet assertion that men and women are equal, and have a basic and fundamental right to be afforded the same dignity, respect and recognition within society. Our voices and personhood are of the same value. Many people do not see the need for feminism because they refuse to acknowledge that discrimination exists, or if it does then they provide elaborate reasons for maintaining the status quo, whether through selectively quoting scripture, misunderstanding history, or just through plain ignorance of the economic and political inequalities along gender lines that still exist today. It is feminist voices that raise uncomfortable issues like female genital mutilation, pay inequality, domestic violence, or the disproportionate effect of austerity upon women – issues otherwise often ignored by the prosperous and the powerful. A group of eleven women’s rights charities, organized as A Fair Deal for Women, recently highlighted that Britain has fallen to 26th position in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, and that austerity policies mean women bear the brunt of paying off the nation’s budget deficit, putting children at greater risk of poverty (The Guardian, 28 May 2015).

Not all women are feminists, indeed not all lesbians are feminists, some men are feminists, and you can’t tell who is a feminist just by looking at them, nor by their politics, ethnicity, class or religious leanings. Feminism is a choice, and it has many different meanings and priorities according to where you are in the world, your identity and experiences. Historians often speak of ‘waves’ of feminism arising at moments of social upheaval. ‘First wave’ feminism can be said to have begun with the pre-World War I suffragette movement, which campaigned for equal voting rights for men and women (not granted in the UK until 1928). Second wave feminism was a mass movement that attended the civil rights campaigns across Europe and the USA in the 1960s, part of the era that saw a younger generation rebel against the entrenched values of authorities, particularly in government and the church. Feminists of that era focused on specific issues like contraception and abortion rights, and challenged traditional ideas about marriage and women’s ‘place’ being in the home. Famous feminist literature rose out of this radical era, like Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), a fine polemic against the socialization of girls to hate their bodies, deny their sexuality, and grow up feeling like second-class citizens.

‘Third wave’ feminism in the 1980s and 90s had other issues to contend with. Prominent feminists like Naomi Klein – young, glamorous and urbane, with mass popular appeal – entered the arena of debate on issues such as the mass commodification of sexuality in the media, and the gender stereotyping of girls through education. Critical women’s voices were raised against feminist campaigns for being dominated by white, middle-class women who did not articulate the trials and experiences of women of colour and/or working-class women. Organizations like Southall Black Sisters, based in London, provided early examples of alternative platforms run by and for women from different minority groups. Recently films such as Made in Dagenham (2000) have recovered the lost stories of working class women’s struggles for pay equality within the modern labour movement.

Of course, the roots of feminism pre-date modern times. Some feminist historians, like Carolyn Walker Bynum, have claimed that Catholicism, in spite of its male hierarchy and exclusion of women from many aspects of religious authority, provided space for female representation and autonomy denied their Protestant sisters (who no longer had the figure of the Virgin and female saints to revere, nor could they choose to enter Religious Life). Feminist theologians like Elaine Pagels have presented radical alternative interpretations of scripture: rather than patriarchy being seen as the only model for cosmic order, ‘the way God wants it’, it has come to be seen for what it is: a system of power relations that provides a convenient legitimizing rationale for female subordination. Menstruating women are no longer banned from taking communion; a reminder that the church in recent times has shifted its doctrinal position in response to changing social attitudes towards gender, among many other issues.

So what can be done to help furthering feminist causes in the twenty-first century? Many agree we are now entering a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism, led by those too young to remember life before the internet, who face a world where they have to negotiate stark contemporary evils such as online stalking, sexist victimization and abuse (‘trolling’). Perhaps the most effective form of transformational change towards gender equality will be for more men to step up and become aware of women’s perspectives and experiences, to ‘create solidarity’ and become genuine friends to girls and women in the co-creation of a more equal, more humane world. f

page 2 Helen BerryHelen Berry is Professor of British History at Newcastle University. She has published widely on social and cultural history. Her most recent book, The Castrato and His Wife (Oxford University Press, 2011) was a Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’. She is a lay preacher at Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church, Newcastle.