All over the world today, as this graphic based upon the World Economic Forum in 2019 shows, gender equality is in flux. Certainly the impact of the global financial crisis (whose effects have been evident for the whole of the last decade), the climate crisis and the refugee crisis – sparked by wars, destruction and persecution of peoples in the epicentres of conflict around the world – have placed often intolerable strain upon families and communities, with women bearing the brunt of sexual violence and caring for those who are injured, young, old and disabled by conflict.
The WEF’s assessment was that even a 100-year target for achieving gender equality was ambitious: ‘At the slow speed experienced over the period 2006–2020, it will take 257 years to close this gap,’ it said. We simply do not have the time to wait for this to happen.
Unfortunately, the UK is among the worst performers in terms of progress on gender equality. The graphic shows that in the year to the end of 2019, the UK fell six places down the global rankings for gender equality. Despite successive prime ministers pledging to take decisive action to tackle the gender imbalances in politics and wider British society, the UK has dropped from the 15th most gender equal nation in world to 21st: Albania, Canada, Costa Rica, Latvia, Switzerland, South Africa and Spain have all overtaken the UK in the quest to close the gender gap across politics, economics, health and education since the last audit in 2018.
The picture of gender equality is not only negative. In one sense, women’s voices have never been louder. Women have been speaking out, demonstrating, protesting, posting, demanding and working for change like never before. From the Tweet to the street, in the workplace and on the screen, women have been actively championing a very wide range of issues from sexual harassment and rape to pensions, from racism to disability rights, from the bedroom tax to the Grenfell disaster.
To give but a few specific examples of how the volume has been turned up on women’s voices around the world: poor Muslim women and an army of allies of all religions ages and genders in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi creating a flourishing ‘protest village’ to resist the erosion of India’s secular ideals https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l728eyA3y6U; Greta Thunberg’s astonishing leadership of school going children in climate strikes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAJsdgTPJpU; young women in Chile’s protests against sexual violence (which has gone viral https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5AAscy7qbI); the #metoo campaign which has helped expose sexual violence at all levels of society https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/23/a-phenomenal-leap-tarana-burke-on-metoos-success-so-far-and-next-steps; the campaigns to address the disgrace of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW in Canada and the US) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8bFL7WC4iE; the women who founded the Black Lives Matter campaign https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbicAmaXYtM; the resurgence of feminism among young women in the UK https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/11/young-women-uk-feminism/
Women in the UK are prominent, and often in the majority, in all kinds of activism, but there is nevertheless a gap where a broader ‘women’s movement’ might be. Perhaps this is our greatest challenge for the coming decade: to build an intersectional feminist movement, capable of inspiring and embracing women with very different lived realities, on different sides of structural inequalities.
This much most women who are born female have in common: a body which is on average softer slower and less muscular than men’s bodies, with the sex-specific ability to carry a child give birth and lactate; a lower income, less ownership of prosocial status and economic status than men; lower rates of property ownership; higher life expectancy than men (in all but two countries); less control than men over their sexuality and reproductive capacities; a higher exposure to gendered violence, particularly domestic violence and abuse; a far greater degree of sexualisation / sexual objectification and judgement of their worth on the basis of appearance and physical characteristics, and lesser degree of importance accorded to their intelligence; and in many countries of the world no formal equality in law.
The headline demands of women’s liberation movements include
These demands are as salient today as ever they were. They are not easily won. However, in pursuing them, it is important that we start to deconstruct what we mean by ‘woman’ so that the real lives of real women can be recognised and addressed. For example, for many indigenous women around the world, violence outside the home is more of a threat than domestic violence. For women in the UK the opposite is true.
It has always been true, but it has become more and more abundantly clear in the last 10 years that the category ‘woman’ – without qualification or deconstruction – is at once too abstract and too particular to be helpful. We may think that when we say ‘woman’ we are referring to all women, but our unconscious concept of ‘woman’ is so strongly influenced by dominant cultural norms that it can tend to render the lived realities of many (maybe the majority of) women invisible. Close your eyes a moment and see ‘a woman’. Who and what do you see? A woman of the global north or global south? A financially comfortable or poor and economically marginalised woman? Disabled or non-disabled? Old, young or somewhere in the middle? White, Black, Asian or another heritage? Someone born female, or born male or intersex? Someone like you or someone unlike you?
We are at a point in history where all worlds have collided and live not just side by side but intimately intertwined. We need to constantly unlearn our assumptions, rewire and develop a responsive, creative language that helps us engage with each other on an equitable terrain amidst the inequitable consequences of the collision of worlds: the woman I pass on the street may just have visited a food bank to feed her children, and collected baked beans I deposited in the box at Tesco; another may have escaped war in Syria having lost the whole of her family – a spectacle I may have witnessed on the news a few months or weeks ago; another may be sleeping rough because of homophobic violence at home while I reside safe enough from the same in my comfortable home.
If we can start to name and consider all the dreadful and wonderful paradoxes confronting and connecting us in all our diversity of lived experience, we can begin to see how structural inequalities are embodied in our daily interactions and transactions, and how privilege and marginalisation is ingrained in the every day. If we turn away from this task, because it feels too difficult, we will always favour those of us (and those parts of each of us) that already enjoy (usually multiple) privileges. It is important to note that white, middle class not disabled heterosexual women from the global north are actually a tiny minority of women globally. They do have far greater representational voice access to resources and power than the global majority. But among the majority, each of us also enjoys some privileges. When we take these for granted we cannot make proper use of them.
Focusing on intersectionality is not about knocking the tiny minority – it’s about knocking on the door of consciousness of all women. Each of us is a conscious being capable of both wisdom and love, injured in one way or another by experiences of marginalisation, and mostly also enjoying some or other privilege. All movements for equality tend to stress the need to overcome our marginalisation – but it is just as important to recognise when we have significant privilege – by virtue of being non-disabled, having class or financial advantage, being born into the dominant cultural or racial group etc. This is not so that we can beat ourselves up – which is a pointless waste of energy – but because privileges are gifts and these particular gifts become toxic if they are not recognised and shared. Unconscious privilege casts a long shadow, leaving others in the dark, and us ignorant of our power and potential. Because more important even than our marginalisation or privilege is the brilliance, creativity, compassion, courage and commitment that can be released when we confront the terrible and wonderful truth about who we really are in relation to one another. Like the power at the heart of the atom, this energy has the power to utterly transform reality.
There is no substitute for an intersectional feminism, capable of holding in focus the complexity of structural inequality in a world which is falling apart under the strain of it. Building such a movement will require becoming much better informed – and less siloed – about intersectional struggles for climate, economic and gender justice, workplace rights, sexual and reproductive freedoms, anti-racist and decolonial movements, disability rights and peace movements across the country and across the globe. But most importantly, it will require upskilling in the area of self-awareness, inner resilience, listening and speaking with attention to the impact of our privileges, and taking into account the impact of trauma (often generational trauma) and the need for healing which applies across a wide spectrum of women. Like any skillset practising it will feel unnatural and clunky at first, but if we persist it will become ‘second nature’.
In order to ensure that the journey toward gender equality and women’s liberation is a healing and transformational one, we will need to learn increasingly to listen, think, speak and act intersectionally. Inequality and injustice divide us unequally – and we can heal those divisions if we start from understanding that there is no ‘typical woman’.
It is important, when considering the theme of women’s liberation to pay attention to those who have been knocking at the door of womanhood, or even questioning the boundaries of the space into which that door leads – namely trans women and men, non-binary and gender fluid and gender queer people. – though small in number, pose big, important and pressing questions against the usual arrangements of gender norm socialisation and identity which are also the basis of patriarchy. Lesbians and bisexual women have for a long time battled stereotypical ideas of what a woman is, or should be – the wave in recent years of trans, non-binary and queer activism more broadly questions the very idea of woman in an even more fundamental way. No wonder the debate gets overheated at times. However uncomfortable, and at times toxic, the conversation in particular between some feminists and some trans activists, the opportunities presented by these developments should not be missed.
Existential philosopher and feminist author Simone de Beauvoir once famously said ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. Upon the dubious foundation of the raw material of biological sex most societies build superstructures of binary gender arrangements, bewildering in their variety, but with one important thing in common: the male body, and the ‘masculine’ characteristics assigned to it are both valorised over the female and the feminine. This is not true of all societies historically or currently, nor is it true to the same extent the world, or even the nation or town, over. But these arrangements are the foundation of three great superstructures: those that uphold patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia. To be a ‘woman’, conventionally speaking, is to be a human being born female (biologically) and as such identified as raw material to be trained into society’s feminine gender norms – and consequently denied access to both male gender norms and the privileges that come with them; and then to reach adulthood identifying to a significant extent with the gender role so assigned. We arrive in the world without much of a clue about the social arrangements we will encounter. Taking the luminous and relatively unformed human potential that is a new born child, and turning it into a girl, and then a woman (or into a boy, then a man) is such hard work (for both society and the child) that huge amounts of resources – physical, financial, emotional – are invested in it. Just think of how much importance we put on the gender of a child even before it is born. Think of the elaborate gender-coded colours, clothes, games, toys, activities, entertainments we create as a society. The amount of energy put into ensuring conformity with gender norms is unimaginably large – and behind it is often the threat of ridicule, exclusion or violence – all punishments for non-conformity.
It is right that we are curious about, question and challenge these arrangements – what hidden potential could be released if we stopped insistently on such strong and fixed binary gender socialisation with its attendant rewards and punishments? How might this revolutionise our world. We will only know the answer to this if we put the energy that is currently being expended on attacking one another into the collective work of dismantling – both within ourselves and in the outside world – the common causes of oppression.