Monday, 6 July 2009

What Labour women should know about feminism

A friend of mine, a couple of years ago, when asked what she would like for Christmas, requested some books on feminism. It was time, she decided, to get up to speed with what feminism meant in today’s society. The present giver looked for such books and could find none, just works from the seventies and eighties.

If you are interested in feminist and cultural history, these are great. But if you want a look at feminism in the noughties, they are not much help. For although we have much to thank previous generations of feminists for – our great grandmothers secured the vote, our grandmothers made it normal to go out to work, our mothers could have the contraceptive pill, have an abortion if they needed one and own property without a male signatory – feminism has moved on somewhat. We need books that help us understand our place in today’s world, where women are free to behave badly, but are judged more harshly than men for doing so, where ‘having it all’ when it comes to work and the family, is possible, but at a price, and where dungarees are out and yummy mummies are in.

So I started thinking about what feminism means to me and my friends. Some of us, for example, have married, and some have not. Of the married ones some have changed our names upon marriage and some have not. I am a Ms, others kept Miss for as long as possible and others use Mrs with pride. We all work, some have children. We are financially independent. Some of us share our money with our partner, others don’t. Some of us wear high heels, some of us refuse to. The same goes for short skirts and strappy tops. Some of us do all the washing and cleaning in the household. Others of us share it. Some of us pay someone else to do it. But the more I thought about this the more I realised how much we had in common. After all, we all want to be treated equally, to be able to make our own decisions about life, to be able to feel safe walking down the street, to enjoy our careers and not to be judged by our marital status. And I realised that whatever decisions we make in our own lives, as long as we make them freely then we are all feminists, whether we use that word or not.

And in fact there are good books for my generation out there. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is excellent. So are Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards and Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti. But these are all by Americans. I wanted to do the same from a British perspective.

The result is my book, published this month, The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism. It looks at areas that occur in our everyday lives and ponders upon what this means from a feminist perspective – from who washes the underwear to what jobs you apply for, from whether vibrators should be shaped like a penis to why we need more public toilets.

The issue of feminism is hugely political, but it is not necessarily party political. My Labour politics inform my thinking, and therefore the book, at all times. And my definition of feminism is largely focussed on the concept of choice, a key New Labour concept (and of course a key Thatcher one, though I reject her use of it). But one of the problems with Labour is that it gets bogged down in thinking about feminism as being just about childcare, working hours, health and carers, and in thinking about feminism in terms of the dungarees and placard that typified British feminism thirty years ago. But as all noughtie girls know, women’s live are about far more than that. Those issues are important, of course, but we also care about defence, about transport, about farming and about foreign affairs. And we no longer conform to the dungaree stereotype.

I’m hoping my book helps bring together feminists from across the political spectrum. But above all I am hoping that Labour women, and men, read it, and realise that in feminism, like in Labour politics, although there are disagreements and factions, we ultimately have more in common than we have apart, and that by accepting this we form some common goals to work towards.