Debate Magazine

London Calling: Feminism Across The Pond

Posted on the 12 October 2011 by Juliez

The political terrain of Britain is shifting beneath our feet. Children of the ‘80s and ‘90s will have no memory of anything comparable to the dramatic, fundamental transformation of our nation that’s currently taking place. In an atmosphere of such instability, where the media’s frantically trying to keep pace, women’s issues – sidelined at the best of times – are slipping further and further down the agenda. That’s where we come in: YouFem is a London-based feminist organisation, aiming to harness the political power of young people and draw women’s issues back into the light…and to have fun doing it.

The elections of 2010 landed us with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. Since then, Britain has been made to swallow a manifesto that no-one voted for; we’re facing a tsunami of spending cuts (£3.5bn cut in the education sector alone); our beloved, free National Health Service is being uprooted, its free-of-charge, open to all ideology left to whither; the state sector is being pared back and stripped of its funding. As a result, police are being dragged off the streets by the budget cuts, public sector workers are being made redundant in droves, and meanwhile our economy is stagnating to the point where pretty soon it’ll be overgrown with moss, and little birds will start nesting in its orifices.

It hardly needs saying that all this has hit women disproportionately hard. As long ago as March last year, Brendan Barber, a prominent Trade Unionist, mused: “Women often work in the public sector because it offers relatively secure work [and] flexible working patterns…the gender pay gap is smaller and the public sector offers more opportunities to combine a proper career with caring responsibilities. Spending cuts would inevitably threaten this – and thus set back the cause of gender equality.” Well, Barber could set himself up as a psychic: female unemployment has reached a 15 year high, with 1.02m women in the UK now receiving job seekers allowance.

Women in the UK earn on average 17% less than their male counterparts. 85% of women feel discriminated against at work. 1 in 4 women in the UK will suffer from domestic abuse. Clearly, the fight for women’s rights in modern Britain is far from over.

Meanwhile, our government is happily ignoring the problems. David Cameron – our plum-voiced, hug-a-hoodie-then-take-his-benefits Prime Minister – has stood up in the House of Commons a few times now and been openly, laughingly sexist. “Calm down, dear”, he told MP Angela Eagle, grinning like a Cheshire cat. What extraordinary wit! Having been a member of the notorious Oxford Bullingdon Club, it’s no wonder that he comes out with such cutting quips, like implying a female MP is sexually frustrated…at the time, I was almost surprised he hadn’t yelled, “BURN”. But sexist banter isn’t his only crime against women. There are, for instance, only 4 women in the 23-strong Tory-led cabinet. And as for the rest of his party…well, suffice to say that every time you say the name of pro-lifer “Nadine Dorries”, a fairy dies.

This is all evidence of a wider problem in our society: open discrimination against women has subsided, certainly, but most women will testify that there’s an undercurrent, a rippling whisper of sexism across Britain. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told by young men, with a pretense at irony, to “get back into the kitchen.” Hilarious, right? I’m sure the 72% of women who say they experience regular sexual harassment at work just roll around with laughter.

YouFem are looking at the road stretching ahead of us beyond university, and noticing that potholes that should have been filled in decades ago are still posing a very real problem. Our future job prospects look decidedly unsure: we will be the first generation facing the rise in University Tuition Fees, and will soon be emerging into a vicious jobs market, shouldering up to £60,000 of debt before we’re 24 years old. The young women among us will have to rediscover the impossibility of ‘having it all’; we’ll be neatly slotted into one of the few gender roles picked out for us, whether mother, career-woman, or juggling part-timer.

Are young women angry about the political and personal uncertainties facing them? When I talk to my peers, many of whom would hesitate to call themselves feminists, they want equality, but most are in complete ignorance of how far away that goal is. Many don’t seem to think that politics is something that touches their lives, and they’re in the majority: a massive sector of British society feels excluded from politics, the substance of which seems to take place at politico dinner-parties, over glasses of red wine with members of the Westminster gang. Political apathy in this country is a growing problem. We’re seeing a steadily decreasing turn-out at the polls, and membership of the major political parties is startlingly low. To preserve our democracy, to properly hold our governments to account, to legitimise their dealings and to push for greater transparency in politics, we need to promote pluralism in our society.

YouFem is a way to do that. We aim to encourage young people, from all walks of life, and all parts of the political spectrum, to engage in politics and to exercise their influence over their elected leaders. We want to make sure that women’s issues stay firmly on the agenda; that equality is a goal for every successive government; that young women are properly educated as to their rights, and feel empowered to speak up when they encounter discrimination. Most importantly, we want to open the eyes of the people around us to the inequality in Britain today. Young women are walking around with their eyes wide shut, blinkered by the idea that feminism is all unshaven bra-burning man-haters. YouFem seeks to challenge that preconception. YouFem seeks to make these young women see that, just by believing in their own equality, they are feminists. A new Britain is emerging, and while the success or otherwise of its future is still uncertain, we can be sure that giving the upcoming generation of women the tools to tackle inequality…well, that’s one step towards a better Britain.

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