Do We Need Feminism?

Photo: Creative Commons.

Do We Need Feminism? Gender inequality, violence and sexism in the present day

by Capacity Building Officer, Liz Ely

On the surface, ‘do we need feminism’ seems like an easy question to answer. You can point to any number of indicators to make a case for the need for continued feminist action: the fact that 85% of austerity cuts come from the pockets of women; the continued prevalence of men’s violence against women; the fact that women and children are being imprisoned in places like Dungavel for the ‘crime’ of moving to Britain. You only need to pick up a newspaper and read stories like this harrowing feature the Australian Guardian about domestic violence or this piece about men posting non-consensual so-called “upskirt” pictures of strangers online to know that we very much continue to need feminism.

Presented by the University of Glasgow Centre for Gender History‘Do We Need Feminism? Gender inequality, violence and sexism in the present day’ took for granted the necessity of feminist politics. It didn’t seek to tell a room full of believers what they already know; rather it asked what particular feminism – or feminisms – we need in 2015. The day looked at how knowledge gained from the women’s liberation movement and feminisms of the past can help shape what we do in the future.

The event had a loose conference format, but sitting amongst the bookshelves filled with feminist tomes gave the day a more relaxed feel than most conferences.

The day began with Prof Fiona Mackay whose paper, ‘Transforming the face of politics? Women politicians and the feminist campaigns that got them there’, looked at women’s political representation, how it has improved and why. Her paper managed to make the case for increasing women’s representation, whilst also pointing out the inherent limitations of this as a campaign goal or solution to gender inequality. It was surprising to learn that before 1997 women had never represented more than 10% of all MPs at Westminster. This was a stark realisation, especially in light of all the recent progress in women’s political representation in Holyrood and Westminster.

Dr Victoria Browne took a more philosophical approach to politics and looked critically at the narrative of social change as a timeline of continuous improvement. The idea that change is a story of progress can be disheartening for activists – when goals are not met the struggle can seem exhausting and endless. Within this context it’s important to celebrate small wins as a kind of cynical optimism which allows for continued engagement.
The panel that followed focused on the issue of childcare, and how our approach to parenting in general prevents women from taking their place in the public sphere.

Dr Rosemary Elliott from the University of Glasgow presented: ‘Language the law and question of consent, historical perspectives on sexual violence in 20th century Scotland’. This long historical legislative context was fascinating, and showed up some of the progress of the second wave feminists. We still have work to do when it comes to challenging attitudes to rape and sexual violence, but looking back over the last century also showed how much attitudes have changed.

Dr Akwugo Emjulu presented ‘Whose feminism? Whose solidarity? Taking Black Feminism and Women of Colour Seriously in Feminist Movements’. She challenged dominant ideas about feminist history, pointing out that as well as contributing to gains for some women, feminism has also has a history of exclusion. As with bell hooks in ‘black feminist thought from margin to centre’ she emphasised the importance of placing the voices of black women at the centre, before presenting her own work with black women activists who struggle to have their voices heard by policymakers, and, far too often, other activists and feminists.

The day finished with Dr Sarah Browne discussing her interviews with Scottish activists in ‘Looking back, moving forward: Legacies and lessons from the Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland’. Her work has uncovered a lot of previously neglected histories, and she challenged the idea that feminism can be easily split into ‘waves’ with little activism in between.

The final panel included two young women from STAMP (Stamp out Media Patriarchy) who told the room what feminism meant to them. Hearing about their exciting and recently funded feminist project – especially after considering the legacies of the past – was a positive way to end a full and intellectually stimulating day.
‘Do We Need Feminism Gender inequality, violence and sexism in the present day’ covered a vast range of different topics, perspectives and ideas.

At the day’s close, event organiser Dr Andrea Hajek from the University of Glasgow expressed an intention to put on other events in the future to examine the issues raised in more depth, a prospect we very much look forward to.

To find out more information about Glasgow Women’s Library,
you can visit their website here.

To find out more information about the University of Glasgow Centre for Gender History, you can visit their website here.

Do We Need Feminism?To find out more about Dr Hajek and her work at the University of Glasgow School of Modern Languages and Cultures, visit her staff profile here.

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