To mark International Women’s Day, the New Statesman asked a few of our bloggers to single out one change that they feel would improve women’s lives in the next 12 months. Also, if you were wondering why there isn’t an “International Men’s Day”, don’t worry – there is.
I’d like this to be the year that the world finally realises that you can’t fix women’s suffering by pouring resources and coverage into recruitment in the banking sector. While we worry about the glass ceiling, we forget that class makes every bit of difference to women’s struggle, whether we’re talking about sexual repression, reproductive justice or austerity politics, which are plunging millions of women into poverty. I’d also like this to be the year that the old guard pulls its finger out and stops criticising movements like the Slut Walks and the Egyptian street defence teams for being too violent, or too uncouth. A new school of women’s uprising is starting to sweep the globe; this is no time for the feminist establishment to join the mainstream in saying “not so fast”.
I would broaden out sex education so that includes a more comprehensive focus on relationships in general; specifically, what a healthy relationship looks like. Considering that two women per week in England and Wales are killed by a present or former partner, as well as the shockingly low number of teenage girls and young women who report knowing what constitutes domestic violence, this seems like an issue that should be addressed properly and urgently in the national curriculum.
I’d like to see cosmetic surgery adverts and advertorial banned from magazines, as well as airbrushing and retouching. At the very least I’d like to see a disclaimer at the bottom that says “this image is computer generated”. The overwhelming focus on appearance is having a detrimental effect not only on women’s self-esteem but also their ambitions for the future. According to the British Journal of Psychology, half of three to six year old girls in the UK have worried about being fat. That’s complete madness. If you’re sent the message that you’re going to be judged exclusively based on your looks, rather than any success you might achieve, as women are at the moment, then it’s going to undermine your ambition. We’re raising a new generation under a huge amount of pressure to conform to a stereotype, and that has damaging implications for the future.
The street harassment of anyone presenting as female has long been a concern of mine; last year I was lucky enough to attend a Hollaback workshop on it during LaDIYfest Sheffield. We discussed the varying, often contradictory forms it takes, from unsolicited “compliments” to undisguised threats or even stalking, and the climate of fear it creates if unchallenged.
Everyone there had endured harassment (or worse), but nobody had failsafe suggestions for how to end it alone, or even how best to deal with individual instances: the possibility of escalated violence on responding can never be ignored. A cultural shift needs to take place – better dissemination of the idea that with the right to free speech comes the responsibility to use it fairly, and to respect the right of female-identified people to appear in public without the fear of verbal or physical abuse.
As a white, Oxbridge-educated, heterosexual, cis woman I’m somewhat reluctant to select “one thing” for the whole of womankind. Besides, if a non-gender-specific fairy granted me this as a wish, I’d no doubt mess it up with sarcasm (“more shoes and handbags please!”), before backtracking and saying something ludicrously vague, such as “equality” or “respect”, which would all sound very retro and New Labour. But I think, to be honest, I don’t want nice things; I want more people to feel horror. Inequality isn’t just an irritation. We should be horrified the extent to which women’s lives are viewed as less valuable than men’s, yet our failure to react is there in headlines on domestic violence, in rape apologism, in the assumption that “women’s work” isn’t worthy of pay, and it’s there when we value an embryo over the bodily autonomy of a living, breathing woman. We’ve internalised misogyny and it takes extreme events – the deaths of Savita Halappanavar or Jyoti Singh Pandey, for instance – to make this error visible, if only briefly. That’s what I’d like to change. Just because women are people, too.
If you enjoyed this, you might like to hear more from Laurie, Holly, Rhiannon, Juliet and Glosswitch at our New Statesman Centenary debate “What is the most important issue facing feminism today?” at Conway Hall on 4 April. More information and tickets here.