“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
― Gloria Steinem
‘… feminists quite rightly identify the disadvantages suffered by women but are sometimes inclined to resort to the very thing they purport to oppose; namely crude prejudice against the opposite gender. This can culminate in examples such as Andrea Dworkin’s well-known statement, “I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig”.’“Quite rightly identify the disadvantages…”? Rather patronising, don’t you think? In many parts of the world and throughout history, just being a woman is and has been a disadvantage. The list of crimes against women is long. Child marriage, acid attacks, domestic violence, stoning, rape, FGM, sex trafficking, slavery, female infanticide… there are many more.
Using Andrea Dworkin, an American activist, as an example of “crude prejudice against the opposite gender” betrays ignorance of Dworkin and of the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though there were so-called radical feminists whose approach was counter-productive (I knew some), a majority were more constructive. Dworkin wasn't typical of twentieth century feminists, attracting passionate loyalty and hatred in equal measure. Those who loved her are known to have despaired of her belligerent approach, though they understood why she did what she did. Dworkin was abused as a child and raped as an adult. Her campaigning was directed at pornography, rapists and men who were violent against women, and at the police and the courts who so often failed to provide justice for them. Here in the UK, a TV documentary by Roger Graef in the early 1980s that showed Thames Valley Police detectives interviewing a rape victim shocked with its lack of sensitivity and humanity. The resulting debate prompted a review of how the police handled sex crimes. There were improvements, though things are still not perfect.
I was sexually assaulted by a Sunday School teacher when I was about ten, something I didn’t tell my parents about as I wasn’t sure of their reaction. I haven’t been raped but came close when I lived in Oxford in the early ‘70s. Resisting my potential rapist, someone I knew, I was hit in the face and had a bloody nose and black eye. In court, the magistrates, mostly male, decided that as I knew my attacker it was just an argument between friends, and bound us over to keep the peace. I appealed. In the Crown Court the judge said my sentence was “a nonsense”, reversed the judgement and fined my attacker, who’d assaulted my employer, a publican, in the interim. The amount of his fine was less than that imposed on a poacher in the following case. It seems that I was worth less than a pheasant. These sort of experiences aren't uncommon.
During the 1960s and '70s the British women's movement attracted a lot of attention. Spare Rib provided a radical alternative to conventional women's magazines, and the Virago Press published some thought-provoking books for women. Contraception became more widely available, freeing women to enjoy life despite the disapproval of religious conservatives. I was involved in the women’s movement in the ‘70s as a member of an Oxford women’s group, campaigning for equality legislation, and a branch of the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty. I vividly remember a discussion about women’s rights at an NCCL meeting when a trades unionist from the Cowley car factory said that he had no objection to his wife attending our meetings if she had his dinner on the table before she left the house. He wasn’t joking. I was nominated to propose the formation of a women’s rights committee at the NCCL AGM in London and was subsequently co-opted onto the first such committee. We appointed Patricia Hewitt, later a Labour MP, as NCCL’s first women’s officer. The other members of that committee included Anna Coote, Tess Gill (now of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers), and Ben Birnberg, the radical lawyer. He introduced me to his mother, who’d been a suffragist.
A leading suffragist, who Mrs Birnberg would have known, was Millicent Fawcett, from Suffolk, after whom the Fawcett Society is named – I’m a member. Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson fought to become the first woman doctor. The new wing of Ipswich Hospital is named after her. The difference between suffragists, like the Garrett sisters, and the suffragettes, like Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters, was that the former sought justice by non-violent, legal means, while the suffragettes used direct action that led to imprisonment and force feeding when they went on hunger strike. The women’s suffrage campaign was interrupted by WW1, when women played an active role (as they did in WW2). In 1928 women over the age of twenty-one were given the vote on equal terms with men. Finnish women were the first to be given the right to vote, in 1906. Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time last year. Women in Vatican City still can’t vote.
The subjugation of women is strongly tied to the monotheistic religions, which have been used to enforce social control. Earlier societies, particularly around the Mediterranean, were matriarchal. Patriarchy developed with Judaism and Christianity, when the paternity of children and inheritance down the male line became a male preoccupation. The history of women’s role in society before patriarchy was largely ignored until an American artist, Merlin Stone, wrote ‘When God Was a Women’ (published as ‘The Paradise Papers’ in the UK) in the 1970s, documenting the archaeological evidence for her thesis that goddess worship preceded the male gods and prophets we’re familiar with. More recently, Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the atheist lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, has studied the archaeology too, and made similar conclusions. Both Stone and Stavrakopoulou have reported significant obstacles to their line of research from male academics.
The development of feminism in the UK since the early twentieth century has been linked to the development of humanism and secularism, with activists, both men and women, campaigning for social justice. Humanism and feminism are naturally linked.
Thinking of feminism in narrow terms, as a campaign by shrill women that began about fifty years ago, is to ignore its development throughout history, without being identified as such, to its continuation now and into the future, nationally and internationally. I find it irritating to hear it dismissed in negative terms by men or women, particularly women who preface remarks with “I’m not a feminist but…”. They may be ignorant of history, but every woman who’s achieved personal, financial, social and professional success owes a great deal to all those men and women who fought for the freedoms she enjoys. We should do what we can to continue the campaign for equality for all the millions who don’t enjoy it.
Oh, and on equal pay…
Richard, if you substitute “men” for “women” and vice versa in your explanation of the lack of equal pay, it reads as follows:
"Rarely is an attempt made to analyse the nature of society and why such traits are prevalent in our world. Take for example Equal Pay legislation which has been on the Statute Book for over forty-years—and has still to be achieved.Would you be happy with that?
"The reason for this is rather more to do with the economic laws within a market economy rather than the inherent beastly nature of the female sex. If men’s wages/salaries are raised to equal those of women who will pay for the increase? I haven’t noticed male employers rushing to the aid of the brotherhood! If female pay was 10% higher than that of men then to retain present profit levels, women’s pay would have to drop by 5% to match a similar percentage rise for men. (All things being equal) This would result in the vast majority of men being no better off."
Click here to read what the Fawcett Society says about equal pay.
And about my post on “cunt” as a swear word...
Dr Richard Stephens of Keele University researched the psychology of swearing for his book, ‘Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad’. He’s said, “In my opinion ‘cunt’ is considered very offensive because of its strong misogynistic overtone.” I share that opinion. It seems to me that the use of the word as a profanity signifies an immature and unhealthy attitude. It is not equivalent to other swear words (I’ve been known to use several) because of its association with cultural taboos.
For many years, in mainly religious societies, women’s bodies and natural functions have been considered unclean by those who ostracise them while menstruating and after childbirth. “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15:19).
To read more in this blog about women and women's issues, click here.
"Between 2009 and 2015, 936 women have been killed by men. 598 (64%) were killed by their current or former partners, 75 (8%) women were killed by their sons."
Statistic from UK Women's Aid.