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Women on the verge: Melissa Benn on Beatrix Campbell and Laurie Penny

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse.

Next gen: Laurie Penny, photographed for the New Statesman, July 2014. Photo: Muir Vidler
Next gen: Laurie Penny, photographed for the New Statesman, July 2014. Photo: Muir Vidler

End of Equality
Beatrix Campbell
Seagull Books, 134pp, £6.50

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Laurie Penny
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £12.99

Beatrix Campbell, journalist and activist, working-class radical and feminist, now in her later sixties, is in many ways the quintessential British writer. She has brilliantly reimagined Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, turned a tough and tender eye on Tory women, dissected Britain’s dangerous places and Diana, Princess of Wales, and, more recently, investigated the Northern Ireland peace settlement through the eyes of women and “the coalition of the committed”.

That she is not defined, let alone deified, as the quintessential British writer may be, at least in part, due to her being a working-class radical, feminist and activist – and now in her later sixties. . . Radical men (unless they are patently ridiculous) mature; their reputations settle and expand. Uncompromising feminists are too often faded – note the passive verb – into the background.

There’s a definite sense of kickback in End of Equality, her latest book. At 92 pages with nearly half as many again in footnotes, this slim volume packs a concentrated punch. It turns out that a potentially boundless mass of information from around the globe works best in pocket-size form, particularly when allied to a clear message.

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse. In the UK the pay gap now seems permanent, the multiple blows of austerity have hit women far harder than men, and men’s involvement in engaged fatherhood, though greater than it was, has not brought about the domestic democracy once dreamt of by second-wave feminism. Over the past four decades, men’s core domestic work has “increased by a rate of about one minute per day per year . . . a pace of change both palpable and pitiful”.

In the UK, decades of legal and campaigning work on equal pay for work of equal value, one of the most imaginative political strategies of class-imbued feminism, has led to some historic successes in Birmingham, Cumbria and Scotland, but cash-strapped local councils are unable or unwilling to pay up. Central government is not going to underwrite local councils as it did the banks, and certainly not in order to pay thousands of dinner ladies, carers and nursery nurses backdated settlements worth billions.

If this book’s theme can be captured in a single word, then that word is impunity: “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action”. It’s a powerful trope, but a little puzzling. Campbell is clearly pointing the finger at the evil genies of neoliberalism – the bankers, global corporate power in general and the politicians whose collective complicity and weakness have ushered in so many horrors – but does she really want to imply that all men have benefited from the uneasy post-feminist sexual settlement, in which equality has gone into reverse? Either way, by the end, impunity is consciously invoked like a mantra, its meaning amplified to signify a “crisis of politics [that] incubates pessimism about the means of making a difference and . . . reinstates the sovereignty of sexism”.

The best bits of the book (for me) are the least familiar and come in a central section made up of riveting accounts of women’s lives, and their acts of resistance, from South Korea and Mexico to India and China. Campbell invokes the creepy world of the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, the single largest manufacturer of components, whose factory estates in China are “eerily empty of children . . . a monument to masculinist economics that promises everything except liveable social space”. But she also summons up the heroic female train attendants and shipyard workers of South Korea, who have scrambled to the tops of towers and cranes, from there to wage months’-long protests at lay-offs and the absence of the women workers’ collective voice, and who, amazingly, have won their battles.

In a final tumble through associative space on the multiple links between the female body and contemporary capitalism, Campbell takes us from The Wire’s terrifying beauty Omar and Tracey Emin’s celeb­rated Bed, through a brief history of the veil in France, to Katie Price, whose reputation as that “rare phenomenon, a woman at ease with herself”, was, it turns out, all propaganda. She never really loved her body: she couldn’t stop altering it. And anyway, “Class will out – Price couldn’t pass.”

For Laurie Penny, too, the female body is the conundrum modernity has not solved, but only made more problematic. Today’s women “grow up learning that . . . however brave and smart and accomplished we are, however many millions we earn or lives we save, none of it matters if we are not beautiful”. Actually, I would quarrel with that assertion. What I wouldn’t quarrel with is her argument that beautiful women are at constant risk of denigration, that all women fear being called ugly and that women in public life, especially feminists, are at particular risk of being labelled ugly.

Penny is one of the first feminist writers to grow up within, and so instinctively understand, both the possibilities and the dangers of this relatively new cyber world, where such women are too easily the targets of vicious abuse. Just as worrying are the new modes of “patriarchal surveillance”, in which “one slip can disgrace you for ever”, be it a naked shot, a compromising email exchange or any number of “furtive late-night search histories”.

No wonder Penny writes as if she is on the run. At 27 she is a forceful presence not just online but within feminism and in the mainstream media. (My daughters read her and Owen Jones.) At the same time, she announces herself a proud member of a society of “broken kids” fleeing mainstream culture and its expectations.

Openly avowed contradictions abound in this mix of pounding polemic and autobiographical sketches of Penny’s life so far, including her harrowing descriptions of being hospitalised for anorexia and the humiliations of romantic and sexual rejection, as well as funnier, if equally frank, accounts of how she got thrown out of a ballet class for teaching the other little girls how to masturbate and why her alleged lack of “emotional boundaries” and predilection for large grey knickers have precluded the possibility of ever selling her body for sex. Declaring herself “always more interested in fucking than being fuckable” she is forever searching for love – just not the kind to be found in “marriage, monogamy and a mortgage”. And, indeed, many a middle-aged divorcee would consider that a highly useful realisation to have banked so early on in life.

Unspeakable Things may be soaked in feminism’s rational and radical plaints, from the emptiness of most waged work to the continuing official compliance in “rape culture”, but Penny’s pessimism surely belongs as much to her generation as to her gender: to the legions of idealistic and vulnerable young people, graduating into unemployment, homelessness and new forms of official oppression.

For young men, many of the old forms of masculine privilege, be it a job in the City or an apprenticeship, have been swept away, and to have a baby early is considered more than ever a poor girl’s choice. Young people are saturated with images of sex but have as little credible knowledge of it as previous generations, while “what really gets social conservatives angry . . . happens not in swanky fetish clubs, but behind the closed doors of abortion clinics”.

Unlike most fourth-wave feminists, Penny displays a militant, if slightly uneasy agnosticism about pornography. She rejects the term “prostitution”, preferring to talk of “sex work”, a descriptor that permits agency and rejects the status of victimhood. “Instead of asking what it is about sex that is so bad for women, we can start asking what it is about work that is so bad for everyone,” she writes. This just doesn’t cut it for Campbell, who counters Penny’s stance on sex work directly, asking: “What can ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ mean, therefore, to a girl snared by men who want to control her body?” At the risk of sounding like a referee (or a mother), I would argue that surely no single term can encompass the experiences of both a trafficked teenager and Stoya, the confident feminist porn star whom Penny quotes at length.

For all their differences, these two writers share an aggressive lack of optimism. You will find here no cheerful reckoning of the tremendous gains made by women in education, politics or culture, nor, funnily enough, much recognition of the ways in which feminist activists and writers have changed, charged or recharged the culture. Setting Penny and Campbell next to a work such as Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor (2013), which takes a triumphalist view of the growing global female professional elite, shows how a clear divide has opened up in 21st-century feminist discourse. Everything’s getting better: everything’s getting worse. Take your pick.

Emotionally, I’m with the Pennys and the Campbells, spirited outsiders who refuse to be bought off with empty dreams of female empowerment. Forty years apart in age, they embody the fantasy of the writer as heroine/rebel, moving from place to place with suitcase and laptop, truthful about the pain that exile from the establishment causes the true nonconformist. Both books aroused conflicting emotions in me – one part thrilling to, and grateful for, their uncompromising boldness, another part resisting the urge to duck, and so evade the sometimes discomfiting velocity of their prose.

Melissa Benn’s latest book is “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?” (Hodder, £8.99)