To get into the UN Commission on the Status of Women, you have to get past several ranks of large armed men. In the foyer, you can buy UN women-themed hats and tote bags, and pick up glossy pamphlets about this year’s International Women’s Day, but what you can’t pick up is the slightest sense of urgency. In the 101 years since the first International Women’s Day, all the passionate politics seems to have been leached out of the women’s movement.
International Women’s Day began as a day of rebellion and outlandish demands – Equal pay! Votes for women! Reproductive rights! – but 101 years later, judging by the invitations in my email inbox, it seems to be more about jazzy corporate lunches, poetry competitions and praising our valued sponsors. At the UN, in a session on body image and the media, delegates (who are meeting this week) applauded politely as a promotional anti-airbrushing video by Dove cosmetics was shown. Cabinet Minister Lynne Featherstone gave a speech in which she condemned the “distorted image of beauty” offered by cosmetics advertisers, and lauded the efforts Dove has apparently made to change this while selling body lotion at £7.49 a tube.
The British delegates present failed entirely to mention that Featherstone is part of a government responsible for putting more women out of work than at any point since records began. Lynne Featherstone and Dove cosmetics claim to be on the side of “real” women, but one suspects that the single mothers whose benefits are about to be cut and the domestic violence victims whose refuges are being closed may not find that prospect terribly comforting.
A huge cultural change is taking place all over the world right now. Over the past year, from the Arab Spring uprisings to the global anti-corporate occupations, young people and workers have realised that they were flogged a false dream of prosperity in return for quiet obedience, exhausting, precarious jobs and perpetual debt – most of it shouldered by women, whose low-status, low-paid and unpaid work has driven the expansion of exploitative markets across the world. Equality, like prosperity, was supposed to trickle down, but not a lot can trickle down through a glass ceiling.
Women, like everyone else, have been duped. We have been persuaded over the past 50 years to settle for a bland, neoliberal vision of what liberation should mean. Life may have become a little easier in that time for white women who can afford to hire a nanny, but the rest of us have settled for a cheap, knock-off version of gender revolution. Instead of equality at work and in the home, we settled for “choice”, “flexibility” and an exciting array of badly paid part-time work to fit around childcare and chores. Instead of sexual liberation and reproductive freedom, we settled for mitigated rights to abortion and contraception that are constantly under attack, and a deeply misogynist culture that shames us if we’re not sexually attractive, dismisses us if we are, and blames us if we are raped or assaulted, as one in five of us will be in our lifetime.
Feminism, however, has not been a sustained part of this mood of popular indignation. Not yet. One year ago in Tahrir Square, women marching on International Women’s Day were sexually and physically assaulted by some of the same men they had stood side by side with during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, with women and girls bearing the brunt of the financial crisis across the world, the biggest discussions of women’s role in the Occupy movement have focused on how to protect them from rapes that have occurred in the protest camps. This week, though, we’ve seen the first inklings of a women’s fightback that is a little less delicate and demure.
What would a radical women’s fightback look like? It might look a little bit like hundreds of women and men linking arms on the steps of the Capitol building in the US state of Virginia, where lawmakers are attempting to force women seeking abortions to submit to trans-vaginal ultrasounds – being penetrated with a medical rod – before they can have the procedure.
Last week, riot police in full armour were dispatched to drag the Occupy Virginia protesters to jail as they demanded an end to this insulting attack on women’s right to choose. Female protesters are currently being processed by Virginia courts on charges of trespass.
What would a daring feminist cultural shift look like? It might look like two young mothers in a Moscow jail, arrested for flash-mobbing churches with short skirts, guitars and an agenda against corruption and institutional sexism. The members of the punk-rock girl band “Pussy Riot” are currently on hunger strike, after being imprisoned for singing rude songs about Vladimir Putin in public. They face jail-time of up to seven years. It seems that as soon as women stop asking politely for the change we want to see, the crackdowns come quick and hard.
Politeness is a habit that what’s left of the women’s movement needs to grow out of. Most women grow up learning, directly or indirectly, how to be polite, how to defer, how to be good employees, mothers and wives, how to shop sensibly and get a great bikini body. We are taught to stay off the streets, because it’s dangerous after dark. Politeness, however, has bought even the luckiest of us little more than terminal exhaustion, a great shoe collection, and the right to be raped by the state if we need an abortion. If we want real equality, we’re going to have to fight for it.
Like the suffragettes and socialists who called the first International Women’s Day over a century ago, women who believe in a better world are going to have to start thinking in deeds, not words. With women under attack financially, socially and sexually across the developed and developing world, with assaults on jobs, welfare, childcare, contraception and the right to choose, the time for polite conversation is over. It’s time for anger. It’s time for daring, direct action, big demands, big dreams. The men who still run the world from boardrooms and government offices have become too used to not being afraid of what women will do if we are attacked, used and exploited. We must make them afraid.
Deeds, not words. Fewer business lunches, more throwing punches. Of course, there will be consequences. Those large armed men aren’t just there for decoration, and the suffragettes who had their breasts twisted and their bones broken in prison 101 years ago knew that full well. But they also knew what we must now begin to remember – that the consequences of staying quiet and ladylike are always far more serious.