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Feminism’s job is far from finished We need young women to stop shouting 'blow jobs are real jobs' and start engaging in meaningful activism

And blow jobs are real jobs. Credit: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And blow jobs are real jobs. Credit: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

February 28, 2020   4 mins

In 1968, a group of American feminists in New Jersey threw mops, lipsticks, high heels and bras into a “Freedom Trash Can” as part of a protest against the racist and sexist Miss America pageant.

The idea was to discard items that symbolised women’s oppression. Passers-by were invited to join in, and at some stage, rumour has it, one of the bins was set alight — but the organisers have always denied this.

Not only did those women galvanise a movement, they gave birth to one of the most enduring myths of early feminism: that women literally ‘burned their bras’.

The Miss America protest sealed the beginning of feminism’s second wave: the Suffragettes had won the right for some women to vote, but true liberation was still light years away. I can safely say, as someone who found feminism as a 17-year-old in 1979, it still is.

The chance for British feminists to make their mark came shortly after. In February 1970, a small group of young women organised the first national Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conference at Ruskin College, Oxford — a landmark moment in the second-wave of feminism.

The idea for the 1970 conference came from Sheila Rowbotham, now a noted historian, and Arielle Aberson, a Ruskin student from Switzerland who was tragically killed in a car crash only months later.

The organisers had expected a crowd of around 100 — but over 400 turned up. The venue had to be moved to the bigger Oxford Union, where delegates covered the statues of men by draping them with women’s shawls. The crèche of 60 children was run entirely by men.

Feminist publisher Sue O’Sullivan describes the 1970 event as a weekend filled with the new discoveries of women’s liberation:

“We looked at what ‘patriarchy’ meant and how to challenge it. We listened to stories of equal pay struggles and examined questions of women and class. With toddlers in tow, mothers, fathers and others addressed questions of childcare, contraception, sexuality, and more.”

The ‘minimum demands’ of the conference were equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries. And such was the energy created, several campaigns for legislative change, such as the Equal Pay Act, were kick started. Following the event, newly-invigorated feminists began setting up the first domestic violence refuges and rape crisis centres.

Sally Alexander, another Ruskin student, also helped organise the event. It certainly inspired her into direct action: a few months later, in November 1970, Alexander orchestrated the now world-famous disruption of the Miss World pageant in London. Dozens of feminists bought tickets to the televised event, and (in front of millions of viewers) threw flour bombs, putting a dramatic halt to proceedings.

One criticism of the early WLM is that it was dominated by white, middle-class women. But feminism is not, and never has been, just for privileged women. The original conference in 1970 included trade unionists and working-class women and was held at an adult education college.

The Equal Pay Act became law in 1970, but according to the Fawcett Society, equal pay is still ‘a distant dream’. The majority (60%) of women in workplaces across the UK believe they are earning less than men who are doing the same job.

The Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1970 but did not become became law until 1975. It was hoped by early feminists that it would serve to protect women from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status. But today it is as likely to be used by men claiming they are discriminated against — for example when free drinks are offered to women in bars to promote ‘Lady’s Night’ — than it is by women facing real sexism.

We have come a long way since 1970. At that time, FGM (female genital mutilation) was not a crime, women were denied anonymity when reporting rape and sexual assault, domestic violence was considered to be a ‘private matter’ between husband and wife, and no laws whatsoever were in place to protect lesbians from discrimination.

During the 1970s through to the 1990s, lesbians were in danger of losing custody of their children, often to abusive ex-husbands, for no other reason than their sexuality. Today, lesbians can foster, adopt, marry and have joint custody as same sex couples.

But sexual violence is still a global pandemic. Despite decades of effort from feminists such as myself, in the UK only 1.4% of reported rapes in 2019 will result in a conviction — a significant decrease from a decade ago.

‘Women’s Liberation at 50’ will see women of all ages interact and learn from each other. In today’s climate of a feminism that better suits men that women, many young women in universities are much more likely to be picketing outside of our feminist events, shouting ‘blow jobs are real jobs’ and ‘trans-rights are women’s rights’ than demanding equal pay, maternity leave or an end to male violence.

But the tide is turning and a genuine, grass-roots feminism is enjoying a revival, as attendance of the recent women’s liberation conference in London indicated. One thousand women (and a few men) were there. And the message was that feminism is a collective movement, not about individual women breaking through the glass ceiling.

“We can challenge sexism, and the likes of Harvey Weinstein. We don’t have to stand for this shit anymore,” says one of the organisers of tomorrow’s event, Tracy Walsh. “In the 60s and 70s there was some fantastic activism that needs to be revived today. Imagine turning up at Miss World and disrupting it in the way that Sally did.”

I hope passionately that the conference does inspire and invigorate — just as I was inspired and invigorated in 1979. For, despite 50 years of campaigning, young women are, in many ways, worse off. Feminism is the only social justice movement on the planet that prioritises women and girls. We must inspire a new generation to take up the mantle.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.


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Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

“For, despite 50 years of campaigning, young women are, in many ways, worse off.”

I’m sorry, but it’s this sort of hyperbolic tosh that completely discredits modern feminism and explains why take up amongst young women has been so meagre – in spite of almost complete mainstream media domination. The ‘movement’, such as it is articulated in this piece, has nothing to offer serious minded young women other than a sort of morbid addiction to the values of oppression and victimhood, and a turning away from the responsibilities (and possibilities) of individual sovereignty and freedom; all in favour of a feministic group identity. The law and culture of this country is now so well set up for young men and women to succeed (moreso than at any other point in history); it is a crying shame that all you are able to offer is further investment in the politics of grievance and resentment.

Your rape statistics also are typically highly misleading and lack any proper analysis or nuance -read Baroness Stern’s Home Office Review about public authorities handling rape allegations if you want the real statistics and nuanced debate/ intelligent thought- but it doesn’t matter because of course you wish only to politicise and establish the myth of a ‘rape culture’ in the UK. No social scientist worth their salt agrees with the feministic conclusion of ‘the gender pay gap’ as a univariant phenomenon and that variant being sexism. It’s incredible that in spite of this notion being dimissed by all credible economic forums it still gets rolled out every time as the dreadful truth about our ‘sexist’ economy.

It’s depressing. This piece is so invested in paranoid schizoid thinking and ideology that there is no room for more nuanced thinking or grappling with any form of complexity. It’s all about the ideology of oppression and victimhood. What if some women want the ‘values’ of Miss World in their lives? What does this say about some women and what they actually might like?

I had thought that this sort of thinking was precisely the herd mentality that unherd was trying to move away from.

The thing about feminism that astonishes me most is that in nearly 50 years of the ‘Women’s liberation’ movement it has said so little that is creative or inventive about what it is to actually be a woman, or a girl, or to be female -save for it being defined in relation to the tyrranical or oppressive ‘patriarchy’. The whole area of relationships between the sexes -I mean, how on earth have men and women accomplished so much together through history -emotionally, psychologically, socially etc…- is potentially such a rich and fruitful landscape to make discoveries in and yet all feminism seems to offer is yet another reductionist trope on oppression and subjugation.

There must surely be more to being a free woman than this? All this protest makes me think that feminism is mostly afraid of finding out what it really is to be female and of actually being free (as well as being free to enjoy men).