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The Five Main Issues Facing Modern Feminism

Despite our collective achievements, sexism today can seem an insurmountable obstacle. These are the fronts we are fighting on.

 

What exactly is "modern feminism"? Whether you’re with the Times and see it as "hot, rude and self-confident", with that ubiquitous pub-goer who remonstrates on how it’s "unnecessary" because we’re not throwing ourselves under horses anymore, or more inclined to agree with this magazine and say that we’re all just obsessed with gin and cake, there’s no denying that we’re seeing something of a new wave. 

"But where is the focus of this new wave?" we hear you cry through mouthfuls of Tanqueray and Black Forest Gateau (which, FYI, is making a comeback), "All anyone seems to do is argue on Twitter!" Well, yes, quite. Turns out that, horses aside, there remain some hefty barriers on the road to 21st century equality. Of course, there are the obvious ones: gin, cake, the inability of many of its members to take the piss out of themselves, that douchebag who is suing his gym, and certain bloggers who think the hashtag #killallmen is the embodiment of empowerment rather than straightforward hate speech (apparently it’s the same as "tremble hetero swine" or "die cis scum" in a good way, both maxims that are unlikely to overtake YOLO as the phrase du jour anytime soon.)

Obviously, the one main issue facing modern feminism is men, and, though we don’t want to kill all or even any of them (nor start a hashtag implying that we might), there’s no point hiding behind words like "sexism" or "patriarchy" when considering who’s really in charge today, and who has the power to prevent us from climbing up there on the phallic plinth beside them. It’s men, pure and simple. But before you start calling us aggressive-looking man-hating harridans (again), let’s break that down a bit for the uninitiated. By the end of this article, you’ll basically be a Gender Studies graduate.

1. The Division of Domestic Labour

Otherwise known as "the final feminist frontier", we actually see it more as the first, because without this one down, gender equality is pretty much a no-go. Our feminist foremothers succeeded in getting some women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, but eight out of ten women still say they do more housework than their male partners, and those with dependent children are even more likely to be slaving away. Contrary to what the Telegraph might say, being part of a couple where you both do an equal amount of housework doesn’t condemn you to divorce, depression, and a dead husband by 33. What we’re talking about when we talk about housework are entrenched ideas that housework and childcare are women’s work and, because women are paid less than men, they’re more likely to give up their jobs to enter a world of underpaid drudgery. It should go without saying that making the choice to stay at home is as admirable as any work, and a choice that deserves social recognition rather than eye-rolling snipes about "desperate housewives", but the point is that many can’t make a choice when their hand is forced financially or socially. Obvious solutions, such as improved provisions for paternity leave, subsidised childcare, equal pay, and just generally being more like Sweden are frustratingly still a long way off.

2. The Media

Yep, that thing that we’ve been banging on about for over a year now: the media does a lot to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes, and culprits range from Weetabix (whose sexist ad implies your lad can be a superhero but your daughter can’t), to Unilever (skinny women aren’t "real" women and/or dark-skinned women should get paler), to fashion magazines (skinny women are the only women), to the Daily Mail (eight year old celebrates her curves in unauthorised bikini shot - hasn’t she inherited her model mother’s legs?) to the sexist scrutiny of female politicians, to the tellybox (just 18 per cent of TV presenters are women over 50), all of which have real-life implications. One study showed that 70 per cent of girls under 7 say they want to be thinner, for example, with the average British woman worrying about their body every 15 minutes. With body anxiety this pervasive, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to media sexism (though more women in top positions is a big one). Campaigns against lads’ mags and the Sun’s Page Three have been gaining ground for a while now, and adding your signatures to these is a step in the right direction. Organisations such as Media Smart, Endangered Bodies, UK Feminista and AnyBody are campaigning hard on these issues, while young feminists are lobbying advertisers and engaging in sticker sabotage. Every little helps.

3. The Glass Ceiling

As many commentators rightly pointed out after the death of Margaret Thatcher that Maggie "made it through the glass ceiling, but pulled the ladder up after her": a phrase that reminded us all of how reinforced that glass really is. Thatcher herself wanted none of the feminist cause, frequently referring to herself as an anomaly amongst the weaker sex; women successes of the modern age are slightly more charitable, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ostensibly helping to winch her sisters through the ceiling with her bestselling career advice book Lean In. Although Lean In is based around the idea that - in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt - "No one can make you inferior without your permission", the reality of the workplace in numbers is that 22 out of 197 global heads of state are women; the percentage of women at the top in job sectors ranging from government to journalism to law in the UK and US levels out at 22 per cent; 18 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are female; women returning to work after having children are likely to see their careers progress downward rather than upward. Personal ambition is undoubtedly an asset, but acknowledging that we must fight overarching sexist structures in the workplace - yes, even through "positive discrimination" - is key.

4. Social Inequality

Around 58 per cent of carers are female according to the Office of National Statistics, with women in full-time work still more likely to be carers than men in full-time work. Transgendered women remain extremely likely to be prejudiced against; lesbian women tend to experience higher levels of discrimination in the UK than gay men. Black African women who are asylum seekers in the UK have an appallingly high mortality rate, estimated at 7 times higher than for white women. The most persistent health disparities, according to the latest EHRC report, were best illustrated by the fact that a quarter of Bangladeshi and Pakistani women reported a disability in the last census, rising to two thirds of Pakistani women in older age groups. This rather depressing state of affairs shows that issues of race, disability, sexual orientation and gender (amongst many other things) often combine to create a reality of extreme disadvantage for certain groups. Most of the time, these groups are female.

5. Violence Against Women

Although it is no longer the case in Britain, a large percentage of the world refuses to recognise rape within marriage as a criminal offence. Meanwhile, here in the UK, 89 per cent of regular domestic violence victims are women, and two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner. The "banter" culture that surrounds violence against women - jokes about "rape as surprise sex"; "I’d have sex with her" recast as "I’d smash it" - doesn’t do this state of affairs any favours. So long as women are disproportionately targeted for violence, our work is never done - which is why the great work of charities like Women’s Aid is so encouraging. 

Put like this, sexism today can seem an insurmountable obstacle, despite all of our past collective achievements. But it’s worth remembering that often, just drawing attention to inequality can be enough to get people on board with tackling it; consider the huge popularity of Everyday Sexism. If you don’t know where to start, places like UK Feminista have a campaign for every form of stigma, ranging from discussions of why people assume that Muslim women wearing headscarves "don’t have a voice", to policing plastic surgery adverts in magazines. It’s still a tough world out there for The Ladies, and we hope that we’ve demonstrated how sexism remains at work in 2013. Here's hoping modern feminism will tackle it; as we all know, a fight on many fronts greatly improves our chances.

 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.