There is currently a vicious backlash against those who say being a woman means something. But women are getting organised to defend their hard-won rights, says Ruth Serwotka
Women are leading the news and not in a good way. This week a report detailed how women and children in England are suffering increasing levels of poverty and deprivation. The impact on women’s health has become significant, with the life expectancy of women in lower social classes going into decline.
Discrimination at work during pregnancy has failed to abate despite the best efforts of trade unions, with one in five pregnant women currently losing their employment due to maternity discrimination.
When women are at work, they fare no better. We do not receive equal pay with men and, despite anti-discrimination legislation having been in existence for nearly 50 years, we do not experience the same promotion opportunities as men.
Men hold political office and the lion’s share of political representation is with them.
One hundred years after the first women got the vote, we still do not have a 50:50 Parliament or a settled method for increasing women’s political participation and representation. Worse still, powerful men are behaving badly all around us. The supposed “good guys” in the charity sector have abused the most vulnerable and desperate women and they have had to acknowledge inappropriate behaviour and step down or step aside.
And even a left candidate in Labour’s internal youth election has called a woman a c**t.
Young women face increasing levels of objectification and sexualisation. The mental health problems of young women have sky-rocketed. Pornography online is now accessed at the rate of thousands of degrading images per second and extreme images of harm are easily accessible at the press of a button.
We have left-wing male commentators defending the right to access porn online, not just in private but also at work.
This objectification and minimalising of women to mere pornographic tropes infiltrates all of society’s cultural iconography impacting daily on women’s lives.
It models a type of behaviour for all men where women do not matter, where our sexual needs are secondary to theirs and where we are dehumanised.
No surprise then that reports of sexual harassment, rape and women being pressured into acts of sexual degradation are everywhere.
While the #metoo and #timesup social media movements reflect a growing confidence among women to demand an end to disrespecting female boundaries, they are, bizarrely, simultaneously restrained by the demand that we allow males who self-identify as women into intimate spaces with women and girls.
Support for the removal of same-sex exemptions from equality law, allowing those males who self-identify as women access to changing rooms, bathing facilities, hospital wards and domestic violence refuges is not a movement that shares an objective alliance with women’s interests.
The demand of transgender activists to have unfettered access to women’s spaces and their linked assertion women must acknowledge “cis” privilege for the mere biological fact of having a womb are in reality a denial of the logic of the #metoo movement.
For, in essence, demanding the right to self-identify into female-only spaces is the demand that women must learn to ignore our own boundaries and to put our needs for privacy and safety second. Nothing speaks more of the nonsense of on the one hand supporting #metoo while also demanding female prisoners share spaces with convicted rapists now claiming womanhood.
The growing feminist response has involved a coalescing of socialist and radical feminists and transgender allies around the now revolutionary notion that sex is a material reality that dominates women’s lives and that sex is at the root of women’s oppression, buttressed by crushing gender expectations of hyper-femininity and conformity.
The backlash is omnipresent and vicious against those women who say being a woman means something, but still there is stubborn persistence amongst women to brave the opprobrium and insist that being female matters.
From such dogged determination we can build a new women’s movement whose first principle is that sex is a material reality and that it shapes women’s lives.
If sex is real, then so is sexism and women deserve legal protection as a result. Policy would have to follow along the lines of this general principle.
Anybody suggesting that holding such a position is akin to bigotry would be mown down by the growing confidence among those women who came to know that their boundaries matter and must be respected.
Such a movement could revisit the early principles of the women’s liberation movement whose 48th anniversary of the first meeting has recently passed.
We would be clear that women must have equal social, economic and political rights with men. That pornography and prostitution involve the extreme abuse and violation of women and girls and we would seek to penalise those profiting and benefiting. We could reassert the notion that women’s bodily autonomy is non-negotiable, including the right to free contraception and abortion. We could demand equality in the workplace.
But we could also look at personal relationships and to say No to unwanted sexual advances and to have access to autonomous female space such as changing rooms.
We could be clear that lesbianism is same-sex attraction and fight the notion that it is otherwise as predatory.
We could look at the radical notion that women are exploited in the domestic sphere where our labour is freely appropriated to the benefit of exploitative class relationships but also to the benefit of individual men and that men’s individual behaviour will be scrutinised and called out when falling short.
With a new women’s liberation movement, we could change the lives of women for the better. It is needed now so very much as clearly women’s lives have become ever more difficult. We need a women’s movement that can centre women once again. We need a women’s movement that can assert that the female sex matters.
Ruth Serwotka is a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK and the convener of Socialist Feminist Network. The next WPUK meeting will be held in Birmingham on Thursday March 15 at 7pm. Venue to be announced. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. For more information visit womansplaceuk.org.
This article was originally published in the Morning Star.