Doing feminism justice
by Jen Lexmond
Has anyone noticed how much the BBC loves women at the moment? First there was that series mapping changes in British families a couple months ago. Now there’s the series, Women, documentaries charting the rise of feminism in the 60s and 70s and the impact it’s had on today’s women and men. I eagerly sat down on my sofa to watch the first two episodes. But what ostensibly looked like tribute to an extremely important set of women turned out to be more of – and I hate to use this word in this context – a patronising interpretation from a world benefiting from hindsight.
Much of episode one, the ‘Libbers’, latched on to the rather more extreme aspects of the movement – the forays into physically violent campaigning, political lesbianism, empowering women to give each other abortions. In fact, I’d say overall those three topics filled over a quarter of the entire programme. The lasting impression given at the end was that unfortunately the Libbers had been a bit mistaken and isn’t it all a little bit embarrassing now?
Where was the appreciation of these pioneering women? The understanding that they were out there grasping around in the dark, with none of the tools - the flashlights, the maps, the compasses - that their male counterparts had access to? In embarking on a personal and political re-evaluation of essentially every part of our society – the family, the workplace, sexual relations, the economy, power and the political process, and so on – it seems understandable that it was going to be a messy process.
Of course there were mistakes. I’d argue that the fundamental mistake was the eschewing of the family. Liberation feminists identified the nuclear family as a site of oppression and so their answer was to abolish it. But surprise, surprise, choosing lesbianism as a political choice didn’t quite satisfy the circa 90 per cent of feminists who were heterosexual. And feminists have never been in the business of neglecting children.
Today feminists have a greater understanding of the importance of inter-dependent relationships – even if they are male-female. And as socialist-feminists have always known, the oppression that takes place within the family must be understood in an economic context too: in the 50s the division of labour isolated women in their homes; today it means that most women carry the burden of a double shift everyday – going to a professional job as part of a dual-earner couple and then coming home and still covering the bulk of the domestic work at home. Securing women’s equal opportunities in the workplace was only part of the solution. Today, feminists must be as interested in securing parents’ equal opportunities to stay home and fill caring roles – something that believe it or not, many men and women would greatly prefer to the world of work. This requires taking a deeper look at men and how their roles have (and haven’t) changed.
But the story, overall, is that the pioneering women of the 60s and 70s gave up their whole lives to dismantling and rebuilding a socially constructed world, and to supplying today’s women with the tools that help us navigate it. From the legislation that ensures our equal opportunities to the analytical tools that help us understand the roles we play in society, we have a lot more reason to thank the second wavers than what I saw on the BBC last night.