Thursday, 23 September 2010

Reclaiming the F Word, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune

Reclaiming the F Word, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
Zed Books

Feminism was the most important and progressive social movement in post-war Britain.  Sadly, today it has become entangled in a skein of contradictory clich├ęs.  The feminist movement is dead; feminist ideas are too dominant; feminism has achieved its aims because women are now equal; feminism has made women unhappy; today's 'feminists' are hedonistic dabblers; feminists are 'feminazis' who want to ban harmless entertainments and rename gingerbread men.  Redfern and Aune want to challenge these assumptions and make the case for a vibrant contemporary feminism.

This is not an academic book - though it isn't lacking in facts and evidence.  Rather, it is a practical, readable handbook for contemporary women (and perhaps also men) with an interest in feminism.  It concisely runs through the various issues that modern feminism is concerned with and follows up with suggestions for action and activism.  It is a sort of feminist equivalent of Jessica Williams' 50 Facts that Should Change the World.

Sexism in the workplace is confronted.  Women are often found in less remunerative part-time jobs, while they continue to be underrepresented at the highest levels.  They are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to suffer sexual harrassment at work than men, and when they get home they still end up doing more than their fair share of the housework.  The reactionary argument that fewer women are found in certain walks of life because women are not naturally drawn to traditionally male areas (management, finance, politics, engineering) is answered by the observation that women who do feel motivated to pursue such careers still find it more difficult to progress within them than men.  There is also evidence that female-dominated careers are undervalued precisely because they are seen as being feminine.  Nurses are probably more highly trained than police officers, but they have a significantly lower status (it might be added that men were actively welcomed into nursing in the hope that they would give the profession more credibility).  As to work-family balance, the authors suggest equal and non-transferable periods of maternity and paternity leave (to which they might have added statutory sabbaticals for people without children).

Attention is given to the female body in modern culture.  Images of women are getting thinner (albeit larger-breasted), but actual British women are getting heavier, by 3kg on average since 1951.  Some surveys have found that only 2% of British women are happy with their bodies, while - dear God - 97% think that size 12 is fat.  Our society and culture define ordinary women's bodies as inadequate and draw them into a struggle for perfection which is becoming increasingly impossible to win.  The authors encourage women to deface those sinister, creepy adverts on the Tube for cosmetic surgery.  I couldn't possibly comment on whether this is a good idea or not.

Sex is addressed too.  The authors challenge the old lie that men are primarily motivated by physical desire and women by their emotions - a notion which helps to mark out sexually driven women as deviant and helps to excuse men from taking responsibility for their sexual behaviour.  At the same time, they note the conflicting social pressure to become sexually active at younger ages, with the result that girls - unlike boys - tend to lose their virginity earlier than they would like.  On the sensitive subject of the sex industry, the authors honestly acknowledge the deep divide among feminists between those who would pragmatically seek to decriminalise and regulate commercial sex and those who regard it as inherently exploitative and want to stamp it out.

The most disturbing chapter deals with violence against women. Female-on-male violence does exist, of course, but the statistics show that victims are overwhelmingly women and perpetrators overwhelmingly men. In the field of sexual violence, Britain has the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe (though I suspect that such comparisons are misleading due to differences between judicial systems). A third of respondents in one poll, some of whom no doubt work for the police or have served on juries, believe that flirty, promiscuous or scantily-dressed women bear some of the blame if they are raped - an example of the tendency to shift responsibility for male sexual behaviour onto women. Then there is the lower-level harrassment of women in the street and during periods of hot weather - a phenomenon of which most men like me tend to remain largely unaware.

The authors rightly deplore the underrepresentation of women in politics.  Female candidates in Britain have to endure comments by activists about their underwear and, until quite recently, a dearth of female toilets in the Palace of Westminster.  One woman MP was confronted in a Members-only lift by a male colleague who thought she was a cleaner.  We still have proportionally fewer women MPs than such strongholds of feminism as Belarus, Ethiopia and Nepal.  There continues to be a distinctly gendered edge to media coverage (and criticism) of female politicians like Teresa May, Jacqui Smith and Harriet Harman.  In the US, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin exemplify the lingering belief that a woman in public life must be either a sour-faced bitch or a shaggable babe.

There are other interesting perspectives and insights too.  To their credit, the authors take religion and feminist ideas about religion seriously.  In popular culture, the authors take aim at such targets as sexism in music, lads' mags and supposedly ironic sexist depictions of men and women.  They also introduced me to the Bechdel test for films: a film must (1) contain two female characters who (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.

Reading this book as a white bourgeois man was in some ways an odd experience.  I would be lying if I claimed I could empathise with (for example) the sections on menstruation, childbirth or sex trafficking.  This is very clearly a book written by women for women, and not just comfortable middle-class heterosexual women either.  There are occasional references directly relevant to men: the authors endorse the admirable White Ribbon campaign, and condemn anti-male sexist stereotypes in popular culture.

All in all this, this is a very useful and thought-provoking book that deserves to be read widely.