On International Women’s Day this year, 100 years after the granting of partial suffrage to women in 1918, we’ll be celebrating women’s political activism in all its forms.
But we’ll also be thinking about the challenges which women still face – whether it’s sexism at school or university, the pay gap at work, or an unequal share of the domestic chores at home - and how we can tackle these.
Highlighting the history of women’s activism, from the first wave of feminism to what is now being called the fourth wave, is one way of combatting the irritatingly common belief that we’re all equal now. Looking back at what women have achieved in the past can inspire us to take action.
For the first generation of feminists, ‘Votes for Women’ was the great rallying cry. It was a clear-cut issue of gender inequality: women, simply because of their sex, had no vote and therefore no political voice or representation.
The vote provided a clearly defined and easily understood objective. In Wales, as much as in England, as historians including Deirdre Beddoe, Ursula Masson and Ryland Wallace have shown, both militant suffragettes and law-abiding suffragists campaigned actively, creatively, and sometimes dramatically, to draw attention to their cause.
We talk about women having been ‘given’ the vote, but it’s worth remembering that women had been asking politely for the extension of the suffrage for four decades before the suffragettes took to the streets. Direct action helped to accelerate the process. Sylvia Pankhurst certainly believed that it was the fear that suffragettes would renew their activities after the war that led to the 1918 Act.
The second wave of ‘Women’s Liberation’ from the late 1960s used consciousness raising as well as marches and demonstrations to make the point that ‘the personal is political’. We got the Equal Pay Act (1970), the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), women’s refuges, feminist book presses, and gender studies in academia. In 1981 women marched from Wales to Greenham Common to establish a peace camp, which became a byword for the power of women’s activism.
In the 1990s came the backlash, along with a third wave which espoused intersectionality and pop culture, but seemed disinclined to direct action. We were told by the media that we were all ‘post-feminist’, and that objecting to the ‘ironic’ pictures of naked women in lad-mags just made us humourless harridans. In retrospect this looks like a period of what I would call inter-feminism, a lull between surges of activism rather than the end of the movement.
And now we have the fourth wave, a resurgence of interest in gender inequality in young women, which seems to have started around 2012 and is characterised by online activism through blogs, chatrooms and Twitter.
So what are the issues facing women now and how can we tackle them? Is online activism enough? Or does it fail to lead to action in the ‘real’ world?
In comparison with the campaign for the vote, the problem can be that the issues we face now seem so complex, endemic and multifarious that it’s difficult to know where to start. The most obvious signals of inequality for young women are sexual harassment and abuse, a rape culture, sexist imagery and online misogyny. For millennials these pressures manifest themselves against a background of global uncertainty, refugee crises, financial meltdown, austerity, zero-hours contracts, crippling student debt, climate change - and now Brexit too.
What has been really interesting is the way in which individual online campaigns have managed to target particular issues. Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project, an online forum launched in 2012 where women could log their experiences of everyday harassment, for instance, made sexism visible again. Similarly, Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to get a woman put back on Bank of England banknotes was successful: the new £10 features Jane Austen. More recently, the Harvey Weinstein scandal led to the #MeToo phenomenon.
It’s not just online either. For me, women’s writing has always been an important barometer of where we are in relation to gender issues. The recent television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale brilliantly updated Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel for the Trump era and demonstrated the risks and power of resistance. Moreover, the inauguration of Donald Trump (a man who has been openly derogatory about women) as President, sparked the Women’s March in 2017 with rallies worldwide, including Cardiff.
In this centenary year we have a lot to celebrate: to take just one example, in 2003 the Welsh Assembly Government was the first devolved government to achieve a 50/50 gender balance. But these advances are hard-won and often fragile (that gender balance has already slipped back to 40/60). This is a good time to take stock of the work yet to do.