It seemed a gargantuan leap forward. In 1959 contraception was finally made available to unmarried women in the UK. As Helen Brook, a family planning pioneer, later recalled: “To think that at last women could be in charge of themselves, decide for themselves. Women were really going to be free.”
Six decades on, “free” is not the first word that springs to mind in relation to women. Pay inequality is entrenched in every country in the world. Abortion and other reproductive rights are being rolled back in many nations. Rape, domestic violence, sex trafficking and forced marriage continue unabated.
Covid-19 has further exposed how precarious advances for women have really been. In the UK women’s incomes (already 18 to 45 per cent lower than men’s) have dropped since lockdown began. They are more likely to have lost work or had to quit their job, and their already unequal burden of housework and childcare has soared. They are likely to be worst affected by the looming economic downturn. Women are also on the pandemic’s frontline as carers, cleaners, nurses and other key workers, disproportionately exposed to the virus, and if they are Bame women, disproportionately at risk of dying from it.
Why has so little progress been made, and why has it proved so precarious? Four new books propose different but related answers.
Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy, is an expert on women’s economic development, who has spent decades studying the obstacles to female equality, running community projects in Africa and Asia, and engaging with policymakers and business leaders.
She is adamant that the only effective way to make fundamental and lasting improvements for women is through economic empowerment — an idea that she argues has been neglected by many feminists, and largely ignored or dismissed by the men who dominate economic policy and practice at every level of the global economy, from company directors in G7 countries to farmers in Africa and Asia.
The evidence, says Scott, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford, is staring us in the face. Gender inequality costs the world economy $160tn a year (a combination of women being paid less and doing less paid work). In the UK alone, the gender gap costs women £140bn a year in pay. Living in the economic shadowlands affects women everywhere and Scott shows how the chains that bind them are interlinked. The sweatshop female labourer in Bangladesh who produces cheap garments and the low-paid woman in America who buys them are both on the bottom rungs of their country’s business models.
The issue goes beyond pay cheques. “When it comes to economic choices, women can seldom act independently,” Scott argues. “Rather, they are often coerced into acting irrationally . . . that is, against their own best interests.”
She cites the project she ran in a village in Ghana to examine whether teenage girls could be helped to stay longer in school by giving them disposable sanitary pads. Without them, girls had little choice but to leave school and get married as soon as they began menstruating, when they come to be seen as a financial burden by families, and sexually available by local men. Equipped with sanitary pads, the girls were able to conceal their fertility for longer. Many, in turn, chose to remain in education.
Scott offers two explanations for ingrained social, financial and sexual inequality: historical power-grabbing and economic opportunism. “The bottom line is that women’s economic subordination comes from the power that men have to make women work in service to them for less or no pay,” she writes. “The cause is male aggression and control of resources rather than men’s natural superiority as stronger, braver and more important beings.”
The author challenges the presumption that economic wealth leads to gender equality, arguing that causation works in the opposite direction: gender equality leads to wealth. Equal and gender-mixed societies are less violent, more prosperous and more stable. Profits go up in companies with more than 30 per cent of women on their boards; recklessness, aggression, bullying and sexual harassment go down. Scott’s central thesis is that male economic monopolies and male-dominated societies are not just rubbish for women, they are bad for everyone, and ultimately unsustainable. “We now need to select for sharing or we will die. Male dominance has proved to be a disaster.”
Scholarly and impassioned, The Double X Economy falters slightly when it comes to solutions. Scott proposes a global shopping strike, pro-women trade agreements, universal childcare, ethical consumption and gender-supportive investment. Easy to say and vital to try, but much more difficult in practice. How does one curb the destructive and short-sighted economic practices driven and maintained by those least likely to agree that a radical change of course serves their interests?
This is a big stumbling block for radical black British feminist Lola Olufemi, who vehemently rejects the idea of working with or within the existing systems that uphold global capitalism, calling instead for a wholesale overthrow of the social structure. Her book Feminism, Interrupted represents an increasingly vocal contingent of young feminists, disillusioned with the state as a vehicle for meaningful change, and intensely critical of the kind of white, middle-class feminism I grew up with.
Written before the murder of George Floyd and the eruption of the Black Lives Matter protests, Olufemi situates race, ethnicity and identity centre stage in the battle for equality, issues that resonate deeply with Gen Z. For Olufemi, the term “woman” is itself an oppressive construct, tolerated only as “a strategic coalition”. Womanhood, likewise, “is not real. It is only a vantage point that we use strategically to lessen the brutality we experience.” Maybe I’m missing the point, but couldn’t the same logic be used to argue that brutality is not real?
Olufemi’s manifesto for revolution is strongest when it lands on specific issues, such as the complexity of consent, prison service privatisation, or the impact of austerity on women and children. On broader issues, her argument derails itself with unaddressed contradictions, which in large part arise from the fundamental problem of how to fight existing injustices without engaging with the structures that contain and/or perpetuate them.
My deeper concern with this version of feminism is its embrace of chaos and disruption as essential forces for radical change. “Freedom requires upheaval and must be fought for, not romanticised,” Olufemi asserts. But as history repeatedly reminds us, chaos-induced change always hits the most vulnerable in society hardest. Syria and Yemen show us all too clearly what chaos does for women and children.
They Didn’t See Us Coming by American academic Lisa Levenstein bridges the gap between Scott and Olufemi with a nuanced history of feminism since the 1990s. Grounding today’s fourth-wave feminism in the context of earlier activism, Levenstein locates both mainstream and radical feminism within a broader historical framework, showing how young feminists like Olufemi are building on foundations laid by the generations before them.
But Levenstein is emphatic that the past 20 years has been a period of profound change for feminism. The old issues — reproductive rights and justice, equal pay and conditions, healthcare and childcare, sexual violence and harassment — have not gone away, but they are now being fought for in a different landscape. The #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter are not passing fads or diversions, they are modern feminism in action.
Levenstein dates the seeds of this transformation to the UN’s fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the moment when it first became clear that feminism had become, “a movement without a centre”. Since then, feminism has continued to diversify and fracture, while also steadily growing in strength and size.
The advent of the internet in the mid- 1990s played a key role in reshaping the feminist agenda, undercutting the influence of traditional mainstream organisations such as the National Organization for Women, and transforming the ways in which women connected with one another within and across interest groups. Crucially, it gave marginalised women the means to remake the mainstream in line with their diverse and multiple experiences and needs. Intersectionality — the idea that people can experience multiple intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression, coined by black activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 — had arrived.
Feminist tech pioneers such as Sharon Rogers and Veronica Arreola quickly spotted the internet’s potential to connect women across geographical divides and give a voice to grassroots activists without having to go through high-level influencers and institutions. I had never heard of these women but, as Levenstein makes clear, they were pivotal in restructuring modern feminism, building online communities years before the advent of Facebook or Twitter.
The January 2017 Women’s March protesting against Donald Trump’s presidential election victory was another turning point. Using social media to mobilise millions of individuals and diverse groups, it revealed, with the world’s TV cameras rolling, the formidable collective size and shape of modern feminism. For all its shortcomings, the internet has helped to transform last century’s feminism into a vigorous, transnational and globally connected movement able to contain multitudes.
For Sharon Moalem, the power of women is not just clear to see — but rooted in genetics. Drawing on knowledge of bees and Japanese apple pruning as well as clinical experience and scientific research, the American doctor and geneticist offers a chatty and enjoyable account of all the ways in which having two X chromosomes gives females the genetic edge over males. Far from being the weaker sex, women are “stronger than men at every stage of life,” he explains in The Better Half.
Two X chromosomes means females live longer, have greater stamina, heal quicker, are better at fighting off infections and are less prone to developmental disabilities. In times of trouble (famine, gene mutations, infectious diseases) the second X chromosome provides females with the genetic equivalent of a fit, fleet and well-equipped reserve army. Males have no such option.
Until very recently, medicine has undermined women’s inherent biological advantage by basing the vast majority of its theory and clinical trials on males. This not only means that research and treatments have not taken nearly enough account of physical differences between males and females, it also means that half of the human race is very poorly understood. While Moalem steers well clear of social or political implications, he makes clear that biological determinism in favour of XY males is misinformed and seriously outdated.
“Regardless of genetic sex, the biggest threat to our collective continued survival on this planet will always be infectious in nature,” writes Moalem. Combined with climate change, global recession and unchecked male-dominated economies, it’s a perfect storm. There’s one thing all these books agree on: creating a world without second-class citizens is no longer necessary only for women, but essential for everyone. Clapping for capitalists, proposed earlier this week by Boris Johnson, is about as much use as a sticking plaster at Chernobyl. If we don’t sort this out soon, the future will belong to no one.
The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Empowering Women, by Linda Scott, Faber, RRP£18.99, 365 pages
Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, by Lola Olufemi, Pluto Press, RRP£9.99, 160 pages
They Didn’t See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties, by Lisa Levenstein, Basic Books, RRP$30, 304 pages
The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, by Sharon Moalem, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 288 pages
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