A (lip) gloss on the struggle

A 'post-feminist' world still needs its Emmeline Pankhursts, says Sally Feldman

February 28, 2008

My daughter, now 23, thinks it's quite funny having a feminist for a mother. She rolls her eyes when I launch into my diatribe about the infantilisation of the Hollywood heroine every time Pretty Woman is shown on Sky. She sees nothing wrong with the proliferation of topless models in lads' magazines since the girls make quite a good living out of male vulnerability. "If parents don't want their daughter to pose nude," she'll snort, "they shouldn't call her Donna Tickle."

She's typical of her generation: impatient with gender politics, impervious to the battles fought on her behalf. These are girls who giggle over pornography, ogle male strippers, enjoy pole-dancing and love short skirts, five-inch stilettos and loads and loads of lip gloss. On the other hand, they are independent, confident, loyal to their friends, funny, sassy and ambitious. They are, in other words, post-feminist.

And that is one of the main reasons why women's studies is in decline ("Last women standing", 31 January). To young women who take their liberation for granted, there's just no point in studying something so worthy and old-fashioned. And besides, what kind of a job will it get you?

You can see their point. Once feminist thinking began to become regularised within the academy it started to morph from joyful discovery to abstract theory. Back in the early 1970s, there we were, drawing up the demands of women's liberation, reclaiming the night, raising our consciousnesses, marching for abortion rights, examining each other's clitorises and, for the brave, tasting our own menstrual blood, as enjoined by our guru Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch.

The personal, for us, was the political. We were advocates for equal opportunities, the opening of doors, the breaking of glass ceilings. We saw the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act as victories that might prove at last that biology was not our destiny but an excuse to oppress us.

However, try telling that to Judith Butler, who was proclaiming that there was no such thing as gender. Or to all those formidable French post-structuralists, such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva who, rather than wishing to break into male strongholds, preferred to emphasise our separateness from them. Campaigns for free nurseries and access to mortgages are worlds away from the ideas of, say, Luce Irigaray, who famously dismissed Newton's Principia as a "rape manual" and E=mc2 as a "sexed equation".

Once high theory had hijacked feminism, the personal became uncoupled from the political. The advent of cultural studies baffled those of us who had thrilled to the uncovering of women's impact, women's voices, the hidden trail of women's history. But just as we'd framed a new grand narrative it seemed there was no such thing as a narrative, no such thing as history. Our clamouring for justice began to look old hat in the face of cultural relativism that regards moral judgments as suspect, disapproval merely a demonstration of ethnocentricity.

But this wariness of new-wave theory shouldn't diminish the huge and exciting body of knowledge and research that has emerged and is still emerging from the multidiscipline of women's studies. It seems to me to be healthy that the subject is now largely confined to postgraduate centres, for they are in a position to infiltrate and influence other areas of study, from the law to economics, from geography to physics. But it's vital that their research relates to real politics and real women's lives as it does in comparable organisations in other countries.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Unesco-funded Centre for Gender Studies at the Communication University of China. I was impressed by the sheer anger of its highly motivated postdoctoral students, and at the range of their activities: giving voice to the marginalised women of Mongolia, providing support and training for migrant women in Beijing. And they have established links with similar academic bodies across the world.

At a time when it's still hard for girls in Afghanistan to receive even a basic education, when women in Saudi Arabia might be thrashed for allowing a lock of hair to peep through their veils, when Iraqi women are being murdered for wearing make-up in the street and when the practice of female circumcision is still widespread, these gender-based centres have a crucial role in providing the knowledge and arguments to mount opposition and create change.

Equally, here in the UK feminist academics are required more than ever to remind us of how precarious are the gains we have made. They should be protesting when Fay Weldon recommends sterilisation for teenage girls, as she did recently in the Daily Mail (15 February), or to counter the claims of Clare Fox on Radio 4's Moral Maze that she's against abortion because she's a humanist. They should be pointing out just how horrified the great campaigner for the poor, Beatrice Webb, would have been to discover that 150 years after her birth our female housing minister has proposed that the unemployed be evicted from their homes.

Above all, they should be making us aware in this momentous year of how radically our lives and our fortunes were changed by one group who knew full well how to put theory into practice. Ninety years ago, women were granted the right to vote; ten years later they achieved full franchise. So let's mark International Women's Day on 8 March by honouring the achievements of the campaigning, marching, starving, railings-chaining, window-smashing, battling suffragettes. Let's drink to action, transformation, rights and power. After all, if parents don't want their daughter to dabble in dangerous insurrectionary thought, they shouldn't call her Emmeline Pankhurst.

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