With rising gender pay gaps, lack of women CEO’s, a weak Prime Minister who claims she is a feminist by just being a woman and the still ever dominant male led academia – it would seem feminism is still failing us. The status of women in western society has come along way since the middle of the twentieth century, but has western contemporary feminism lost sight of women’s freedom in the place of a fashion fad label, fuelled by social media? Following a debate held by the York Union with the motion, “This house would not identify as a feminist” the realms of modern-day feminism were put on trial, as speakers were divided over definitions of feminism and how we should be viewing women in the modern world. The debate featured Ella Whelan, author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism and former Assistant Editor of Spiked. In opposition, the counter speaker was Vicky Pryce, a Chief Economic Adviser, Greek Economist and author of Why Women Need Quotas.
Contemporary feminism, or Fourth-wave Feminism, is a social media fuelled movement associated with the period beginning in 2012 to the present day. It typically is known for the Body-Positive Movement, the #FreetheNipple Twitter campaign and #MeToo Movement. This current wave especially focuses on justice for women, sexual harassment and opposing violence against women. Previous waves of feminism, most notably Second-wave Feminism were viewed as more radical due to their focus on decreasing inequality and improving freedom for women. It has been argued by some, that contemporary feminism is not enough for breaking down the still prominent barriers of patriarchy as it limits women by being protectionist.
Feminism in the twenty-first century is often used as a fashion statement. Its bold claim is seen printed over cheap, pink t-shirts on the rails of high street shops as it is ‘trendy’ to openly proclaim yourself as a feminist. But what if contemporary feminism is not enough? Does wearing a cheap factory-made t-shirt with ‘I am a Feminist’ on equal the same as marching for women’s abortion rights in Northern Ireland? Should feminists in the twenty-first century be striving for more? Whelan would argue, contemporary feminism is a fashionable label but is not doing the best to promote gender equality and freedom for women. Many claim they are feminists like Theresa May, who is all too ready to give herself the label of feminist but never uses her platform to speak out about women’s rights issues like pro-choice. The word ‘feminism’ has become a popular proclamation without serious action involved to fight real inequality.
“This house would not identify as a feminist” although initially seeming to initiate a controversial debate, was one largely centred around semantics. Both speakers defined what feminism meant to them in opposing views which signified the generational difference between the two women. A debate based on definitions and semantics, possibly failed to ignite a more powerful conversation about what women could actually be doing to further their freedoms. The title of the debate itself, largely encompasses the problems of contemporary feminism, it is too concerned with labels, with definitions and proclamations, when it should be taking to the streets and fighting the inequalities that still exist in the modern world.
Ella Whelan frequently features as a political commentator whilst being an open critic of contemporary feminism. For Whelan, one of the main problems with feminism today is the social media trivialization of women’s issues. She pointed to the ridicule of the Kleenex man-size tissue uproar, the limits of #MeToo and the failures of the #FreetheNipple campaign. She pointed to the online culture of silencing women, and claimed that therefore, contemporary feminism was anti free speech. This protectionist culture formed by contemporary feminism, she argues, is a way of encouraging women to be afraid of men when it should be promoting their freedoms. Whelan wants to see a radical version of feminism, one that goes to the streets and fights for abortion rights, instead of Instagram posts featuring #FreetheNipple and then proclaiming self-serving notions of feminism. Contemporary feminism for Whelan, is a failure to embrace freedom for women and is not enough to combat the still prevailing gender inequalities and limitations to freedom that it is creating for itself. This culture according to Whelan is initiating a type of fear mongering that undermines women in encouraging them to be afraid. Perhaps controversially, Ella argues the gender pay gap is one of the biggest myths in contemporary feminism. She believes that the misinformation it promotes is paving the way to the creation of a fear mongering feminist culture.
Vicky Pryce’s judgement of success for women was largely shaped by economics, hardly surprising given she is an Economist and was a former Head of the United Kingdom’s Government Economic Service. For her, what feminism includes is irrelevant, all that matters is that people are doing something to make a difference. In contrast to Whelan, Pryce is against pornography even when used proactively and with choice by women. She does not see how pornography can have the potential to provide women with autonomy and power in a realm ruled by men. Whelan claims pornography enables women to take control over their own bodies and rather than making it a feared industry, it should be open to decriminalization to increase the safeguarding of women who have it as their career. Pryce claims the porn industry is riddled with problems that silence women as they are still in a naturally lower position. Pryce maintained a rather pessimistic view of women in claiming that women still cannot speak out and are effectively a silenced group in western society. She sees the advancement of gender equality and power for women as being purely economic. She argues that feminism must solely work on improving the percentage of women at the top of industry and business, reducing the gender pay gap and encouraging women to embark in STEM subjects and industries. For Pryce, the only measure of improving freedoms for women is economic and she judges the past success of feminism through economic opportunity. Her version of power and liberation is so invested in economics, that she fails to see the importance of cultural and societal changes in enabling liberation.
Contemporary feminism for Whelan is normalizing female weakness rather than enhancing it. She believes the culture it portrays encourages weakness of women, rather than their undeniable strength. However, Pryce claims that men still rule the western world and feminism has made little advances to improve the position of women in society. A significant feature of the debate was the agreement that contemporary feminism is very much an online movement and one fuelled by modern media. Whelan claims that contemporary feminism is a popular fad as the media knows articles about tampon tax and Kleenex tissues will sell but those about pro-choice won’t. She explains the problems with this online, media driven cultural feminism as the issues to give attention to are decided by ‘professional’ feminists who are out of touch with the day to day issues that women are facing. For Whelan, conceptions of contemporary feminism are riddled by a certain class consciousness.
Much has been debated about the #MeToo campaign – a movement against the harassment and sexual assault of women. Becoming viral on Twitter using the hashtag #MeToo, the movement aimed to destigmatize the conversation about sexual assault and harassment. This was another dividing line between the two speakers. Whelan was openly critical about the campaign in arguing that it encourages women to be afraid and destroys political solidarity, it doesn’t promote strength in numbers or autonomy for the individual. Whelan disagrees with the movements promotion of women as the victim and men as the perpetrators. Modern feminism’s creation of all men as beastly is something that Whelan finds repulsive as it promotes that women will always inherently need sexual protection. However, Pryce supported the movement’s importance in claiming that it created a significant platform where women could speak out about their experiences. She was very decided that the campaign had made a real difference to women’s lives and gender equality as a whole. She argued that it helped shake the complacency surrounding sexual assault and revealed the extent to which it was still going on.
Matters of sexual freedom were a significant feature in the debate and suggested a generational difference between the two women. Whelan is an open supporter of women using the male gaze for their own advantage and argues that contemporary feminists disallow women sexual freedom in creating a climate of fear around sex. However, Pryce argued that body choice and autonomy does not change anything and that selling yourself, even when chosen, is demeaning, rather than liberating. To this Whelan bluntly claimed, ‘there is nothing wrong with tits.’ For Pryce, equality is economic, for Whelan it is culturally and socially bound. Whelan’s main problems with contemporary feminism is that it tells women how to behave. She advocates for something bigger, something better, and something to fundamentally change the freedoms of women. Pryce was ardent that freedom for women could not be attained without money and that ‘economic equality is gendered equality’. Despite economic opportunities needing to be gender equal, it seems rather limiting to focus on money as the only means to greater liberation.
Feminism, like all words are subject to changeable semantics and meanings throughout time and space. Contemporary feminism may be a far cry from the efforts of those who fought for women to gain the vote and equal representation in law as men, or those who fought for control over their reproduction rights with the advent of the contraception pill in the early 1960s. However, no one is debating whether feminism is still needed. It seems probable that contemporary feminism has lost sight of the initial search and attainment of fundamental freedoms for women it its endorsement of triviality through social media and other platforms. It is not enough to wear a badge proclaiming your loyalty to feminism, that is the easy option.
This debate portrayed opposing methods for achieving greater gender equality via the extension of economic opportunity or greater sexual freedoms. However, the reality is that the efforts of feminism should intervene within every aspect of life, every country, continent, town, city around the world. Feminism should disturb the accepted cultural, social, political and economic functions of life all together in its fight for equality and women’s liberation. Contemporary feminism needs to acknowledge its weaknesses but celebrate some of its strengths. Most of all, it needs to continue and extend its fight. It is not enough to improve the lives of wealthy, middle class western women. It needs to be a social movement that transcends social, political and racial barriers – it needs to be all-encompassing. It still needs to put up a fight and not become complacent. But most of all, it will always be relevant and the debate will undoubtedly continue.