How much progress have we made towards gender equality?
Feminists are often called upon to answer this question. It is not an easy one. There is nothing clever or radical in denying that in many societies, very significant forms of discrimination have now largely disappeared or been drastically reduced: the exclusion of women from various professions and from universities; the taboos around women swearing or drinking in pubs; the unquestioned normality of sexual harassment (a phenomenon which until relatively recently did not even have a name). I would probably rather be a woman in the UK now than in the 1940s or 50s. At the same time, I think there are many respects in which the present is far worse for most people – and for women especially – than it has been in living memory.
My father didn’t go to university, but my mother did, in the early 70s, as a 20-year old single mother of a young baby. She paid no fees, received government grants towards her own and my brother’s maintenance, and made use of the heavily subsidised childcare provided at the university. Later, she used her degree to get a job at an FE college, where she taught biology at evening classes to mature students – many of them housewives who had missed out on university or a career to raise a family; a good number hoped eventually to qualify as school teachers. None of this could happen now. Blair’s Labour introduced university tuition fees in 1998, initially £1000 per year. Since then, fees have risen astronomically. At first, there were grants for those from the poorest backgrounds. Recently those too have been stripped away; even bursaries for nursing students have been replaced with loans. Meanwhile, affordable childcare is notoriously hard to come by.
My mother was made redundant in 2006, following the Blair government’s cuts to funding for adult education. Since then, she has worked on and off as a carer for the elderly – for private companies, of course, and for the minimum wage, her co-workers almost without exception women. For every woman working as a carer for low pay, there are several more who work for nothing, in isolation, looking after elderly or disabled family members because no-one else can or will. The neoliberal policies embraced by both the Tories and New Labour, as well as the austerity politics of recent coalition and Tory governments, have hit women harder; but although a handful of feminists have long made the point, these are rarely considered feminist issues. ‘Gender equality’ today is most readily associated with glass ceilings, boardrooms, quotas, female heads of state or members of parliament, and women fighting as front line soldiers.
‘Gender equality’ today is most readily associated with glass ceilings, boardrooms, quotas, female heads of state or members of parliament, and women fighting as front line soldiers.
The concept of ‘equality’ on its own says nothing at all about what is supposed to be equalised. If it is formal access to professions, then we are all but there. But this formal equality makes little practical difference to the lives of most women, who are still more likely than their male counterparts to find themselves in precarious unpaid or underpaid roles. Merely trading formal for a more substantive equality won’t do either – unless as feminists we are content to set our sights on a substantive equality of misery for most. A kind of equality worth having is only possible in the context of a society in which care in the broadest sense – care for people’s educational, social and psychological as well as bodily needs – is treated as a common project. Relative to that ideal, we not only have a long way to go, but are moving fast in the wrong direction.
Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.
Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017