Feminist discussion has become a characteristic, and somewhat unavoidable, feature of my family’s dinner times, occasionally to my parent’s dismay. Sometimes, after about 45 minutes in, after which topics such as lad culture, rape, vajazzles and Frankie Boyle are fully exhausted and we’re only just moving on to the pros and cons of glamour modelling, my parents like to tell my Female Eunuch-throwing twin sister and me to get calmly off the podium and have a biscuit. The oppressive bastards.
OK, that’s not what they do at all. That’s not what we do at all either (we only have one copy of The Female Eunuch). But what they do like to do is remind us that things were far worse back in the day – perhaps not on a nightly basis, but often enough to pique my ire. There’s never been a better time to be a woman, the narrative goes. So don’t let these things bother you so much. Have a biscuit.
The thing is, that line of argument doesn’t really mean anything to me. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, did anyone ask Martin Luther King to stop caring so much because – relatively – There’s never been a better time to be an African American? Yeah of course, The Civil Rights Movement’s trajectory had, at that point, reached its most obvious peak of progression. But it was not an ultimate one. It was no end-point, despite its euphoric rhetoric.
Maybe I shouldn’t use that moment in 1964 as an analogy for what my sister and I felt about 21st century forms of sexism at our dinner table, but I’m going to anyway because I can’t think of another one right now. The point (however convoluted it may seem) is that my parents were implying it was anachronistic for my sister and I to care so much about feminism because stuff has already been achieved for us. We should just be grateful. Eat sugary snacks. Bake sugary snacks. Open a fucking cupcakery and just dedicate our lives to twee, simpering gratitude.
For me, this perspective explains why some people don’t see the need for feminism anymore (cue Carla Bruni.) Of course, I do agree that in most respects, there really never has been a better time to be a woman. But that doesn’t mean that 22.2% of the House of Commons is going to see me pack away the Greer, dust off my hands, and relievedly sigh, ‘Well, that’s done, then.’
The problem is that the 21st century forms of sexism are less tangible than they used to be, less able to be reduced to such barefaced statistics. With 21st century forms of sexism, people can’t see what latent sexism looks like, because, like duh, it’s latent (although, to be honest, a lot of people can’t tell what explicit sexism looks like, but that’s a whole other kettle of hard-boiled fish.) Add to this the fact that this generation’s faculties for perceiving them are blunted more than ever, because ‘feminism and sexism is over’, and you have a potentially toxic combination.
These unrealised or less tangible forms of sexism in all its variations are not less damaging, or necessarily less political, to an individual woman or man. They can be on a public scale – take for infuriating example, the notorious, ‘Calm down, dear’ remark from Cameron to MP Angela Eagle. Or on a private scale: a female student on her way home is shouted at (‘SMASH!’ – or, if you’re a TV presenter, ‘smash it’) by a group of ordinary looking men, probably indeed very ordinary, with female friends and relatives at home. And it can bleed into the whole linguistic structure that we use – ‘I’d hit/beat/destroy that’, ‘Don’t be a girl’, ‘You woman’, ‘You cow/dog/bitch.’
But back to David Cameron, where the buck should stop. Sure, he didn’t anticipate how badly his comment would be recieved, since it’s all just banter in this post-political age where women’s legal rights have already passed through the very room he was standing in. Everyone knows men and women are equal, right – so what more is there to be done? Similarly, the catcallers of the world would most probably (hopefully) agree with most basic equality sentiments. If asked, it is possible that they were simply ignorant as to that political nature of their catcalling – perhaps most importantly, the aggressive and deeply misogynistic connotations associated with the term ‘smash’. For them, the word is probably just a new and humorous addition to the LadBible, simply harmless banter. And if they say it to someone they know, then it’s just totally ironic megalolz.
But these sorts of intimidation form only a minority of what is modern day inequality or just plain sexism. In fact, there is still so much to be done. Women are still grossly underrepresented in government and in the highest profile jobs. The pay gap remains a stubbornly resilient problem and women have been more affected by the recession as a group than men. Rape today is increasingly seen as an acceptable subject for jokes. One recent survey claimed that 63% of young women in Britain aspire to be glamour models, though nobody thought to even go out and ask any young men whether they’d be willing to take their shirts off as a profession. 1.4 million people ‘Like’ the LadBible on Facebook (a website that’s rewritten the Lord’s Prayer to include ‘Thy sperm will come, in the fanny or the bum, at home as it is in the brothel, as we forgive those who are frigid against us, and deliver us from babies.’ Seriously.) To name just a few things.
We seem to be living in an era of mild self-congratulation: There’s never been a better time for women / in my day things were far worse etc. But unfortunately, equality isn’t a box we can tick – it’s a, er, path to travel down daily (I know, I know.) The point is that if we stop thinking about the fact that equality is an ongoing concept, then we run the risk of accepting a status quo our foremothers would have been ashamed of. We may as well become fully signed-up members of the LadBible, and carry the Lad Prayer in our apron pockets to recite while we make the sandwiches.
In other words, come back to the dinner table and pick those forks back up. Because I don’t think we’re finished here.