“Don’t call me baby”: prospects for a new women’s movement

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Last year a high ranking Canadian police officer provoked a new movement by suggesting that young women could avoid rape by not dressing like a “slut”. It was a few weeks later that SlutWalk was born, seeing demonstrations of women – and men – proudly walking through cities across the world, dressed exactly as they pleased.

SlutWalk was a success, and although things have been a little quiet since, it represented a possible rebirth of the women’s movement not just abroad, but in Britain – something that has been bubbling away for some time.

With debates flying around from its very inception (can we reclaim the language historically used to keep us down?), it was found hugely problematic by some, was thought to be riddled with contradictions by others, but drew in vast numbers of people from a diverse background; it had all the makings of a mass movement.

So where did it go?  With so many women suffering hard from public sector cuts, childcare difficulties, precarious employment and attacks on the right to choose, there is certainly the basis for a new women’s movement – so where is it?

 

An equality illusion?

During the Summer of 2010 Kat Banyard published The Equality Illusion, a book that complied a series of interviews with women from a range of backgrounds. Tenderly written and well researched, it proved to be hugely successful, particularly with younger women who were beginning to question if they really did have it all. Alongside her book, Banyard launched UKFeminista which saw a weekend event with nearly 1000 women attending.

It drew in a mix of campaigns and organisations, primarily charities and NGOs. For a brief period Banyard was a media hit: young, intelligent and vibrant, she was genuinely challenging the idea that modern women were liberated.

If you’re a feminist of the anti-capitalist kind then you might have had a few issues to take up with Banyard and her UKFeministas – primarily her controversial position on sex workers. During a Radio 4 interview Banyard explained that she would never share a platform with a sex worker, and found the very term ‘sex work’ offensive, because it isn’t work of the “ordinary kind”.

Debates over issues like this have plagued the Feminism for many years. Laurie Penny summed this up perfectly in an interview with New Left Project, arguing that liberal feminism’s obsession with Playboy and strip clubs was something of a distraction. Of course strip clubs are bad for women – but is it the cause of women’s oppression, or is it a symptom of something much worse?

If it is a symptom then that suggests the cause is different, something that liberal feminism is slow to pick up on. Penny identified the problem with this brand of feminism: in an age of austerity and cuts, protesting against a strip club is the least of most womens’ troubles. Holding on to your job, fighting day-to-day violence and loosing valuable services is no doubt your priority.

 

Reclaim the Night

Reclaim the Night is a great demonstration, and attendance on it soon reminds you why it is needed. A large number of women walking through London on a cold November night, chanting anti-rape slogans gets all sorts of attention, and some of it is hostile. Groups of boozed up lads take it upon themselves to scream obscenities at woman protesting that exact attitude.

The annual protests, which occur in cities across the globe, is organised in London by the London Feminist Network, a mixed grouping that is primarily led by radical feminists. The meetings after the march are often inspiring and exciting, and nearly always held in the same place. Last year’s Reclaim the Night took place a few days ahead of the N30 public sector strike and there was a hugely supportive feeling in the room. All the speakers on the platform were vocal about their support for the strike to a huge hall packed full of women of all ages, and many men too. It looked like a movement, it talked like a movement and it felt like a movement

On one Saturday, every November you get a sense of a movement… and then it finishes. Where do these political women go once Reclaim the Night is over? Why is it we only get together once a year, to march again and again on the exact same issue? Have we made the streets safer? Have rape convictions increased? Are we organising in our communities and workplaces on a consistent basis every day?

Though an entirely different creature, the SlutWalk movement showed a similar problem with the here today – gone tomorrow issue facing women’s struggle. Major women’s movements nearly always arise as a response to sexual violence against women, and although this it is crucial, they are nearly always short lived. The work of radical feminists in organising these marches is so important, but are yet to make real, sustainable roots in communities. There has not yet been a real concerted effort to build a lasting women’s movement. This is a problem, but it is also an opportunity.

There are many reasons for women to be angry right now: objectification; sexual violence; attacks on our right to choose; pay inequality and cuts to services on which we rely – to name but a few. It is crucial that feminists discuss all the issues that effect women, but also connect them in a fight against capitalism. How men relate to women on a daily basis is an important arena of struggle, but we have to understand it in relation to the system as a whole. A woman being called “baby” in the street by a stranger is as important to fight as her pay inequality, but they both have to be understood as part of the same fight. A powerful women’s movement won’t come as a response to sexual violence alone – it will be part of a wider movement against capitalism’s attacks on women.

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