The third feminist forum took place at the beginning of April, covering the provocative topic of Multiple Feminisms. The aim was to explore feminism’s breadth and allow presentations from perspectives which would not be considered central to the movement. The hope was to challenge ourselves whilst remembering our common goals.
Speaking first was Michael Moore, Regional Organiser for UK Feminista, who focused on the role of men in feminist activism. He opened his talk by affirming that “male feminists do indeed exist” and that feminism has been a positive experience in his life. Outlining his involvement, he said that his role as a NI Regional Organiser was to co-ordinate actions and groups in the region. He recapped previous actions from a male perspective, including those targeting domestic violence, trafficking, reproductive rights and campaigns to broaden gender diversity within politics; concluding that potential male contributions to the movement need to be tackled on an issue by issue basis.
Michael discussed how domestic violence, trafficking etc. evoke a ‘female victim face’ and a ‘male perpetrator face,’ concluding that engaging the male population is unavoidable if the attitudes which permit these crimes were to be tackled. Male silence on these crimes “should be regarded as a form of complicity.”
He insisted that men need to stop thinking that feminism had nothing to do with them. Culturally, there is a huge argument for men’s involvement in feminism as a movement based on gender equality and with the power to bring out the best in everyone. Its core values require appreciating the shared responsibilities between men and women and shared experiences which can benefit universally. He acknowledged that female only spaces are sometimes preferable, but that most problems would not be solved without an admission that women and men need to work together.
Michael shared his awareness that, within feminism, “diversity can be a difficulty.” Veteran feminist campaigners sometimes resist male involvement, often due to past mistreatment from men at an individual or institutional level. He attributed suspicion of male feminists to unfamiliarity, and said that it was incumbent on men to build these bridges.
Asking rhetorically what the “sham” of liberal democracy has done for women, Michael concludes “very little.” Representational government allows citizens to vote, once every four years, to mandate individuals to represent them. Due to governments always being predominantly male, legislation and policies tend to reflect male perspectives. The political system must represent men and women, and a sustained conversation between the sexes is a prerequisite to achieving this.
Michael explained that since becoming a UK Feminista Regional Organiser, he is frequently quizzed on his motivation for working with a feminist organisation. His response is that 100 years ago, western democracies denied women the basic right to vote. He believes that if he was alive then, he would be appalled into supporting suffragists. There remain more important issues to campaign on today.
He recently surveyed activists on feminist priorities in the region, in order to avoid campaigning based on his own perspective. Generating over 100 substantial responses, the survey identified 5 top priorities: legalising abortion services, preventing rape, preventing domestic violence, ending the gender pay gap and transforming women’s representation in media and society. He challenged people to offer arguments against men campaigning on these issues.
Sadie Fulton of the Socialist Workers Party spoke next, presenting on feminist issues from a Marxist perspective and illuminating important areas of overlap between the two. Marxism identifies the birth of social classes as the beginning of male-supremacist sexism, the dominance of which Marxists see as harmful to both sexes. Sadie outlined this narrative, arguing that the only world without sexism was one with no class.
Marx’s ally Friedrich Engels put forward the theory that women were considered equal to men in hunter-gatherer societies. Differences only arose when members of those societies achieved a surplus of supplies, meaning that they moved from subsistence-based resource management to one in which extra supplies required dedicated manufacturers and managers. The development of heavy labour eventually led to the use of machinery. The typical biological differences between male and female physical strength and build meant women were sidelined and a woman’s role became increasingly confined to childbirth and parenting.
Sadie recounts that women’s oppression took different shapes. Working class women were ignored for promotion within factories. Women who lived in luxury usually had restraints placed upon them in terms of leaving the home to seeking employment. Women’s oppression is therefore different to other types of oppression, as women were everywhere throughout society rather than a small minority group. Working class men have always shared an interest in seeing oppression eradicated. Sadie explained that the sources of domestic violence are powerlessness and weakness, and that the roots of this stemmed from classist culture. She questioned the argument that men naturally wanted to oppress or be violent towards women; rather, these attitudes were ingrained in them.
The presentation then moved on to present-day sexism, which Sadie considers a matter of social responsibility. In societies which lack a healthcare system free at the point of access, children are raised and cared for by women. Children born in to better-off families where such systems exist can benefit from paid facilities, their parents from the hired services of others. The relative freedoms afforded to women in this minority of families are prohibitively expensive for less wealthy majority.
Another issue of profit-driven society is its fostering of a new concept of sexism, known as raunch culture. With women today more emancipated than previous generations, marketers focus on stripping individuals of their self-worth to in order to sell products to ‘restore’ it. To be socially valuable, to be “worth it,” consumers must use a certain hair product, wear the right clothes. Sadie emphasised the importance of purchase power, calling on women to abandon products whose manufacturers and marketers reproduce this raunch culture.
In concluding, Sadie reiterated Michael’s point about the failings of liberal democracy, recalling that “the big gains made, such as those which came from the suffrage and Dagenham movements, were all linked to class issues.” They were achieved through social struggle and through working alongside men.
Finally, Kellie Turtle from Belfast Feminist Network took on the topic of the sex industry and explored the often unpopular argument that legalisation and regulation of this industry would be the best way ensure the women involved are safe and empowered. Through a presentation prepared by Cat McGurren of QUB FemSoc who was unable to attend, Kellie outlined the failings in the current legislative landscape. This involved outlining how the law in both the UK and Ireland is confusing, at times contradictory and actually contributes to making sex work more dangerous. For example, laws on soliciting and brothel keeping force women to rely on pimps to find business and into working in isolation rather than working together. In addition, the very fact that it is an industry that is so criminalised means that when women do encounter violence they are unable to report it and seek the help of the police for fear of arrest Kellie gave a recent example of 3 violent robberies by a gang of men in brothels in London where the women didn’t feel safe to report the attacks due to a recent clamp down on the sex industry amid fear that the Olympics may cause brothels to proliferate.
In exploring some of the ways that legalisation and regulation could help make sex workers safer, the New Zealand model was considered with it’s stringent health and safety provisions and focus on women controlling their own work. A quote from a 23 year old Escort from Wellington described the work as “gratifying” and said she feels “appreciated”. Kellie outlined some safety and human rights arguments for the legalisation of prostitution including reducing exploitation by pimps, raising women’s awareness of their rights, improving the health of sex workers, and removing the social stigma surrounding this work. There is also a case for this approach making a significant impact on reducing sex trafficking as regulation gives women a voice and would make it easier to detect and protect women forced into prostitution. We then looked at the website Escort Ireland which is an important resource to independent sex workers who operate here. There are currently 320 such sex workers in Ireland, 88 brothels in Northern Ireland and around £500,000 spent every week. Escort Ireland not only allows sex workers to advertise safely but also provides a forum for them to freely discuss their experiences and a platform for them to campaign for changes to the law. Some quotes from the site gave an opportunity to hear a small snippet of what those who are central to this debate have to say. Finally, Kellie looked at the common assumption in the feminist movement that sex work is in itself a form of violence against women and claimed that it is not good enough to persist with this claim, painting all women as victims, while there are women who are fighting to transform the industry through enhancing the rights of sex workers. Regardless of our uncomfortableness with the idea of it or the outstanding questions about the balance of power in the exchanging of sex for money, we must open the door for sex workers voices to be heard and in the current legislative context that can’t happen.
As you can imagine, there were a number of contributions, questions and discussions that emerged from these opening speeches, the richness of which can’t really be captured in a blog post. Please feel free to add to that by posting your own thoughts in the comments.