Among the active left, feminism is a matter of debate once again. For many years, feminism had been buried in the mainstream, along with socialism and Marxism, as if relics of a bygone era. This was clearly false: feminist ideas are still vitally important not just to women but to society as a whole. I have been thinking a lot recently about the state of feminism, the future of the feminist movement and about women’s demands today within a neoliberal, capitalist system. It seems an important time to be discussing these issues, poised as we are at a time of great change.
I was brought up by a wonderful feminist Mam. She gave me a grounding in the values I’ve lived with all my life. In the North East, I was also brought up in an environment dominated by some amazing feminist women. Very recently, I became a Mam too, which has put me so much in awe of other women. I have had to count on the wisdom of other women so much in the first nine months of my baby’s life, through the bleary eyes of the terrifying early stages and then pretty much every single day since. I am humble enough to admit that becoming a mother has been one of my toughest challenges yet, as well as being the most beautiful.
What I have found in that journey is that it is never my baby that is the problem, it’s always the expectations of society: the job, the beauty pressures, the way in which we are expected to function after bringing life into the world, and for most women on maternity leave, with considerably less money than when they were in work. Added to this pressure is the alienation of our own bodies which we are forced to accept, turning it into a product to sculpt, feeling the need to shrink ourselves, to reject the flow of beautiful hormones that help make our milk and give life, to be awake, ready, and prepared to meet what the systems demands, as though we didn’t just perform a miracle.
There is no way – and I say this honestly as a woman with a new baby – that we can or should be expected to do it all. To me, liberation is not about managing, coping, or struggling with all the roles that we as a sex are supposed to perform. We should be clear that our liberation is not about ‘doing it all’. When we become mothers, or carers for whatever reason, and are consequently unable to perform the thousands of other tasks in the same way as before, that is not our failure but a failure of the system.
We soon find out, both during pregnancy and in early motherhood, that society is not designed for us, but we have to try to adapt to its inflexible rules and systems. Feeling exhausted, feeling like we cannot cope some days and riding the rollercoaster of birth, illness and even death is normal, but that sense of societal failure, of not reaching its expectations, is alienating not liberating.
I want to reflect on what I think are some of the challenges and opportunities facing our sex in 2019. I am worried about feminism. I am worried because I feel like there is a runaway train, taking it down a neoliberal track which is devoid of class politics and which is burying some of the more difficult conversations about what is happening to women. Capitalism has its grip on women’s bodies, every day distorting what it is to be beautiful, changing the rules like an abusive partner.
We see the explosion of body procedures like labiaplasty, a surgery to reduce the size of the labia minora. For some, this is about discomfort, granted, but for many is ‘to neaten up’ their vagina because porn made it feel ugly. We’re seeing more vaginoplasty: a surgical procedure to tighten the vagina muscles. Again, that is often about women worried about their tightness after childbirth.
More commonly (and more accessibly) women are availing of lip fillers, pumping plastic into their lips to make them bigger. And why? The underlying message, carried via social media in many cases, is one of sexual fantasy. In other words, procedures to allow men to fantasise, or to allow men to satisfy their fantasy, whether that is the conscious motivation to have them done or not.
Women are encouraged by emerging societal norms to get fillers, botox, facials, microblading and acid peels; to defy ageing, because to age is to be less attractive. Making women dissatisfied with a natural process is immensely profitable. A hyper-gendered society is reaching its peak right now: young girls getting nail extensions, eyebrow waxing, shaving their legs, contouring, when they are still children themselves. The pressure to use unrealistic filters, to shrink themselves to take up less and less space in the world results in binary gender norms that are often brutally entrenched.
There’s an explosion of influential YouTubers, who get millions and millions of views, sometimes in return for doing the most mundane things like shopping or putting on their make-up, but their content is shaping the minds of young girls and boys. It is an early introduction to a world which is obsessed with perfection, style, image and consumption.
I don’t – and would never – exclude myself from these norms. I take part in the rituals as well. I am not trying to elevate myself above the everyday reality of a materialistic society, but I believe we must question the underlying forces that drive the need to consume and conform to norms set elsewhere and at the behest of big business.
We are fed a fluffy, celebrity version of feminism which too often roots out and dissolves the conflict necessary to confront our oppression. We are encouraged to worship women who have become successful through their sexual image, or women who have become inordinately wealthy. As socialist women we should view the liberation of our class and our sex in terms of equality and justice in a society where there will be no billionaires but instead freedom to succeed in any avenue of our choosing. Because we know that in order to become a billionaire, you have to steal from the mouths of our sisters.
Our liberation, our freedom, is inextricably linked with the economic system and we should never forget that. I cannot see the attraction of a feminism which does not have a class analysis at its heart and which does not encourage and nurture conflict with the prevailing order. Because if it doesn’t, it will automatically exclude millions of working-class women in this country, and the billions of women across the globe whose economic oppression is their fundamental reality.
If I’m being frank, I am not bothered how many women CEOs there are if they are not also interested in women workers owning the wealth they produce. I do not care if the Prime Minister is a woman if her policies drive other women into what has been commonly termed as survival sex (or women being prostituted as an economic reality of this broken system). I am not interested in how many of the FTSE 100 companies have women at the top if those same women exploit other women and keep them in poverty pay.
I’m not interested in a politics which is concerned with tinkering around the edges of a deeply unequal system, one that perpetuates rigid gender norms, normalises violence against women and keeps women locked in financial insecurity. I am interested in dismantling that system, not glorifying it. .
As socialist women, our demands should be economic liberation and a rejection of the gender norms that imprison us. We should fight for our labour in the home to be seen as just that, as work, and to ensure that bringing life into the world is seen as a process to be protected, and our status in that period of our lives elevated, rather than having it portrayed as a burden or a waste because we become “economically inactive.” We should be at the forefront of the fight to create an economic system which benefits us all, not worshipping a system which promotes a few millionaire women making the rest of us feel like failures.
And to men, to the working-class brothers in this fight with us (because of course, feminism is intimately bound up with socialism), they must understand the trickery here too: that it may temporarily suit men to benefit from the societal and gender norms created by capitalism, but in the long run it only harms them too.
There is a cycle that needs to be broken and, of course, while collective actions are what elicit change, some of that responsibility is individual too: stop watching porn and understand the way in which women’s mass entry to the workplace has resulted in a double burden of work and home and a mental responsibility for everything. Men don’t have to be bystanders in this discussion. Our struggle is your struggle.
Fundamentally, how do we teach a young girl, a precious mind, that she is ok in her own skin, that her lips are fine as they are, her period is not shameful? How do we make sure she knows that her body is powerful, her mind immense and the potential that lies before her is vast? How do we connect our struggles? How do we challenge the hyper-materialism which consumes young girls? How do we let her meet the exploited young girl sewing her trainers?
Our struggles are connected, and it is incumbent on us all to work for a socialist society which challenges capitalism. In a smaller planet, I have so much hope in those two girls meeting, connecting. There are infinite possibilities to do so. A socialist-led Labour Government has the potential to change the status quo, but that must be underpinned by a strong women’s movement working in solidarity with our sisters exploited here and globally. Here’s to a society without billionaires, whatever their gender, and to getting economic justice for women across the world, and for our class.