Before Christmas, I visited an exhibition at the Tate Britain. Titled ‘Women in Revolt’, it’s a retrospective examining the art that emerged from the radical British feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s (though with a notably English focus).
“It’s sad,” said my 69-year-old mother, after making her own pilgrimage to the gallery. “Things have changed, but it feels like we haven’t really made that much progress.”
My conclusion was much the same. But not only have material conditions failed to shift significantly in recent decades, there seems to have been a parallel stagnation in British feminist thought. The charged currents of radical, primarily socialist, feminism in mid-century England have been smothered by a contemporary mainstream and liberal feminism that is shunned by the left and weaponised by the right. In fact, ‘Women in Revolt’ felt akin to a eulogy for political ideologies lost.
The demands of the women’s liberation movement are still live issues. The gender pay gap gapes (especially in England); economic parity is a myth. Childcare remains in crisis, as does healthcare, particularly on fronts that disproportionately impact women (such as reproductive care). Violence against women and girls hasn’t ended, and the cost of living crisis has ensured some forms – like domestic abuse – are occurring at consistently higher levels than before the pandemic.
Gender inequality persists: in the workplace, in the home, in the political sphere, and in interpersonal relationships. New attacks on trans people from the political establishment, motivated almost wholly by transmisogyny, further stress the need for a functioning, joined-up movement that factors in gender as a site of struggle.
In England, that movement doesn’t seem to exist right now. Individual thinkers and groups like Lola Olufemi and Sisters Uncut act as an outpost, still carrying the torch of a feminism underpinned by a strong, radical ideology. But for the most part, it’s been striking just how few of my young, leftwing peers seem to organise and operate under the banner of feminism first and foremost.
This point has been driven home at the many pro-Palestine marches and protests I’ve been to since October. The pro-Palestine movement has never been so popular in England, pulling in people from across the political spectrum. At national demonstrations I’ve seen delegations representing Jewish groups, Black liberation groups, anti-policing groups, anti-war coalitions, trade unions, nuclear disarmament campaigns, football clubs and LGBTQ+ collectives. But I’ve not seen anyone marching as a feminist. Yet at a pro-Palestine protest I went to in Paris, signs declaring the presence of ‘les féministes françaises’ were front and centre.
Where English feminism is absent from the liberation causes it should naturally align with, it’s instead being used as a tool to silence people. Last week, rightwing culture warrior Julia Hartley-Brewer signalled just how much feminism has been co-opted in an interview with Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti. As Barghouti attempted to outline his argument, Hartley-Brewer repeatedly interrupted him, asking him to “condemn Hamas”. She eventually implied her guest was being sexist – an accusation dripping with racism.
That exchange was perhaps the last word in the elite capture of feminist rhetoric. But I’m more frustrated with the young leftwingers like myself who have given up our claim on feminism without a fight, convinced by untruths that it’s too narrow and identitarian as a basis from which to organise. That may be true of the fake liberal feminism which became a cultural phenomenon in the 2010s – the feminism which told women their power came from consumption and participating enthusiastically in patriarchal capitalism as ‘She-EOs’. But it isn’t true of the robust socialist feminism shaped by women in the 1970s and 1980s.
A friend who grew up at the heart of the South African anti-apartheid movement in England recently told me about cutting her teeth on the feminist politics of the ANC’s Women’s League, led by Black women (of both Black African and South Asian heritage). It was an intersectional politics from the ground up; organising was centred around confronting the “triple yoke of oppression” that Black women experienced: “sex, colour and class”. But throughout the 1980s, radical left campaigns in England – particularly those that wove together diverse coalitions and actually gained traction in addressing gendered problems – came under attack from Thatcherism. Socialist feminism was no exception.
The same external assaults and internal fractures in the radical left that saw anti-racism give way to tepid liberal multiculturalism stripped feminism of its socialist backbone. The New Labour nineties, while making some advances in living standards, ultimately saw the state “address women without feminism”, as Angela McRobbie puts it.
McRobbie correctly predicted that New Labour’s thrall to privatisation and individualisation would limit its success in achieving either gender equality or wider economic redistribution. She also identified that socialist feminism among younger generations was faltering, amid a wider crisis in leftwing politics, sapped of energy after 20 years of Tory attempts to crush and divide. Instead, only a bourgeois, liberal ‘feminism’ – exemplified by the yuppie ‘working girl’ archetype – that used gender as a 2D identitarian lens through which to analyse the world was able to progress unchallenged.
To help answer the problems of our current moment, we need the revival of internationalist, socialist feminism in England. Class consciousness alone isn’t enough, as widespread sexism and harassment within trade unions shows. Neither is adopting a political framework based on any one characteristic; reductive identity politics has done more to sow disunity than build coalition. And as our economic landscape putrefies, the backlash against women and other minority groups only grows fiercer (as does its denial).
We need to reclaim our feminism from the transphobes, the bad faith actors and the limp cultural discourse about porn and cosmetic surgery. English feminism isn’t a dirty word anymore, but its mainstream sanitisation has made it an embarrassing one for many of those who should be its standard-bearers. The last 20-odd years have taught us it’s not enough to claim socialist feminist values in private; we have to organise around them publicly too. I’m making my banner as we speak.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.