Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement

July 1, 2010

Given that today the majority of British women (and men) support feminist demands such as equal access to higher education, the right to contraception, abortion on demand and equal pay, what is it that is distinctive about the women and men who feel OK about the f-word?

A plenitude of media pronouncements claim to know what feminists are, and what they think. This useful book, based on a survey of 1,300 avowed feminists, articulates what today's feminists actually are interested in, and what their concerns are.

It won't be an immense surprise to learn that feminists are a heterogeneous lot or that many feminist activists are young: I can't reclaim the night - I have to put my children to bed! It is pleasing to learn that there are so many young women who feel impassioned about equality and confident about using the f-word (a finding that runs counter to frequent media declarations).

Being a feminist is also about how it is understood. Broad definitions of feminism, as being about choice, equality and freedom, are more likely to be embraced; narrow definitions, less so.

Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune articulate and explore in detail seven key concerns of contemporary feminism. When survey respondents were asked to identify three issues that most concerned them, equality was dominant, but violence against women was a close second, and concerns about "the body" third.

Today's feminists want "liberated bodies"; they are concerned about "appearance anxiety" fuelled by the cosmetic, pop and porn industries. They worry about what Natasha Walter has called, in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010), "the current hypersexual culture" that leads to teenagers requesting boob jobs or "designer vaginas". These trends are reinforced by the almost complete invisibility of older women in the media and the plethora of "makeover" shows.

Reproductive healthcare, and more education about reproduction and menstruation, are also demands; so too is easier access to abortion. The "technocratic" obstetric management of childbirth in Britain is challenged. Supine birthing positions, chemically induced labours, episiotomies and the increasingly routine use of the Caesarean section are all seen as being counter to the best interests of healthy women. The right to breastfeed in public is asserted.

The book looks at sexual freedom and choice, where the sexual double standard takes a deserved bashing, and the objectification of women is further challenged. Although popular journalism has paid increasing attention to men's unease at idealised images of male beauty, there is little dispute as to which sex is under most pressure.

The proliferation of pornography, which even in its milder forms tends to eroticise women's subordination or passivity, and the almost inescapable exposure to violent forms of pornography, are seen as problematic and as impeding equality; there is also concern about the conditions of sex workers, and the poverty and deprivation that fuels the lap-dancing and porn industries. Walter's book is the more hard-hitting in its exploration of the very high rates of childhood abuse of women who then become prostitutes, and the drug addiction, misogyny and violence that follow.

Homophobia is highlighted as a continuing problem: homosexuality is illegal in 80 countries. The right to a divorce is seen as an important human right. In many countries women are ostracised, or worse, for trying to extricate themselves from unhappy or violent relationships - "Only a person who is free to walk away can consent to sex," assert the authors.

This is an intelligent book that illustrates global awareness of women's issues.

Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement

By Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
Zed Books 244pp, £65.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781848133945 and 3952
Published 1 June 2010

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