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16 January 2006

Where have all the feminists gone?

Across a whole range of issues, including even abortion and rape, women's rights are being challenge

By Zoe Williams

Predictably, the 30th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act brought with it some self-congratulation and some sober self-examination. Sisters may celebrate their increased presence in the workplace, and an altered domestic dynamic. Indeed, though there are changes yet to be wrought – correcting discrepancies in pensions, part-time salaries and so on – you might even think: “This battle has been won. Now we just need a few accountants to sort out the boring bits.”

This is insane. Pensions and pay gaps aren’t even the half of it. There are battles re-emerging today that feminists of 30 years ago would have fire-breathed out of existence, and we’ve forgotten how to fight them.

In October last year there was a public meeting at the House of Lords, organised by a group called Abortion Rights. I had been expecting an informal and sparsely attended discussion about the media presentation of abortion. Throughout 2005, indeed for the whole of the past century, there have been surprising media swerves in a pro-life direction. The right-wing press – let’s call it, for argument’s sake, the Daily Mail – will run a fetishising picture of the marvel that is a growing foetus, and beside it a spread about “three women who will never recover from their abortion trauma”, or a “searing”/”moving” interview with someone whose mother wanted to abort them for having Down’s syndrome but for some reason didn’t. The left-wing press, meanwhile, is almost mute, I suspect because it feels no need to defend abortion rights and because having them is not something easily celebrated in print. This leaves a rhetorical vacuum.

That’s what I thought this discussion would be about: I thought a small group of people would get together, laugh at the Daily Mail, and go home again. I was not expecting a large public meeting focused not on the media, but on the very nature of abortion rights and the spectre of their revocation. I simply didn’t realise how far to the right this debate had moved.

In May 2005 Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewkesbury, who will probably be known to you only as The One Tory Who Never At Any Point Wanted To Be Leader, won the private members’ ballot. He used his moment in the spotlight to propose a blanket ban on abortion. This rocked nobody’s world – some people jeered at him. The bill gets its second reading in March, at which point, I predict, people will jeer at him again. Whatever his long game is, I don’t think it’s his career.

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Before the bill’s first reading the following September, however, Evan Harris, science spokesman and, suddenly, potential leadership candidate for the Liberal Democrats, called for a committee on foetal viability, with a mind to bringing the abortion time limit down from its current 24 weeks. The time-limit debate is coming from two directions – Harris’s we could broadly call the medical one, which serenely argues for abortion law merely to keep pace with medical advances. It’s a bit of a dodge, given that no significant changes in foetal viability have come about since the last debate about the time limit in 1990, which led to it being reduced from 28 weeks to 24. But nevertheless, it’s fairly measured.

The other direction is that of the Tory MP Liam Fox, who famously addressed this issue with the rather undergraduate rhetorical flourish that he didn’t come into politics to make it easier for people to kill their babies. He wanted to bring the time limit down to 12 weeks, which meant, in effect, that this had nothing at all to do with viability: it was to do with making it so logistically difficult to get an abortion that it might as well be illegal.

Against a backdrop of people like Robertson, time-limit arguments get away with looking much saner than they are. In fact, they are a smokescreen; anyone with a serious interest in hastening the terminations of unwanted foetuses would be campaigning to make it easier for women to have an abortion before 12 weeks (currently, many health authorities don’t offer abortions before three months) and to make it possible for nurses to perform certain types of abortion. The number of women having an abortion between 20 and 24 weeks – which is the disputed territory, unless you’re Liam Fox – is tiny and unrepresentative, often featuring foetal illness, mental illness on the part of the mother following violent sexual attack, bereavement, domestic violence, all kinds of hideous circumstances that make these the very last people on whom an anti-abortion onslaught should be launched.

Unfortunately, however, this is the modish way in which to be anti-abortion without ever saying you’re anti-abortion. Really, you’d rather deal with a Fox, because at least he’s not sly.

The notable thing about this business, though, is not that there are some Tories who never fully came round to the idea of a woman’s right to choose in the first place; it is the silence of the pro-choicers. Even the stalwartly pro-choice MPs Laura Moffatt, Chris McCafferty and, Katy Clark, who all appeared at this public meeting, presented their arguments in rather abashed terms. “Obviously, nobody wants a high abortion rate . . .” “Clearly, we do not want to be Europe’s leaders in teenage abortions . . .” Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Hull North, mentioned in passing that she’d been surprised by the casual misogyny she’d noticed among the new intake of MPs: she had no chance to expand, as everyone was too busy stating their support for abortion in the most embarrassed way possible.

The point is, this parliament may have more women in it than ever before, but it lacks the feminist firebrands who would make “casual misogyny” impossible. It lacks the people who are proud of our abortion laws to the extent that they would take issue with Tony Blair saying just before an election that he personally had “problems with abortion”. Were this debate to start from scratch today, the MPs simply do not exist who would fight for the right to abortion on trenchantly feminist grounds.

Socialism hasn’t been the only victim of the frantic scramble for the middle ground. Most big ideas will, at some point, clash with what is “nice” and “consensual” and “third way”, and the culture of Westminster will no longer support the former over the latter.

As an index of how these weaknesses seep into the outside world, in November Amnesty International presented the findings of a survey about rape in the UK. One-third of respondents said that women were “asking for it” if they behaved flirtatiously, and one in four said they had it coming if they wore “sexy” clothes. Women were also partly at fault if they drank to excess, which dovetailed neatly with the findings of the Portman Group’s September survey, “Anatomy of a Big Night Out”. Women are “getting into more fights, more arguments, and are being arrested or cautioned by the police more than young men” after drinking, that survey found. The worry of the group was that women were “risking more than men”, a concern that had been bubbling under the licensing-hours debate that dominated booze-centric chat for the whole year.

There were some absolutely rudimentary things missing from this conversation: faced with the spiralling incidence of drink-related crimes committed by women, nobody – well, no politician, no think-tank, no research institute – was saying: “This is what happens: the end point of equality is that women can mess things up as men can. So bring on the drunk women. Bring on the women getting arrested. Because the alternative to that is women at home, sober, not because they choose to be, but because they do not have the freedom to behave as men do.” Nobody was saying: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” Nobody was saying: “A woman might well go out dressed to seduce one person, or a whole heap of people; that doesn’t give everybody carte blanche to rape her.”

We’re scared of our own eyeshadow, here – we don’t want to betray our happy-go-lucky post-feminist shtick, we don’t want to be the boring one who doesn’t shave her legs on political grounds, but now we’re in the pubs and in the workplaces we ought at least to be able to call upon the arguments that got us here.

This silence is beginning to spread through the wider culture. Supposedly impartial information-gathering is actually vilifying young women for behaving like their male peers, with no explanation offered for why a woman should set higher standards for herself. She merely should. People are inching back to the moral code of five decades since, when men were just beasts in suits and a woman flashing her cleavage was guilty of an idiocy so great it was basically criminal.

Squeaky columnists can say what they like, but what we’re lacking here is the solid citizens, the kind of people you’d get to vouch for you on your passport form, the police chiefs and politicians and medical experts, saying: “Hang on, young women cannot be blamed for every bad thing that befalls them. No matter how much they cost the state in throat cancer and Saturday-night abrasions, they still have a hell of a lot of catching-up to do.”

I mean, what’s happened to all the feminists? And can we, in all conscience, celebrate the achievements of yesterday’s feminists when we’re making no effort to live up to them?

Zoe Williams writes for the Guardian

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