Gender and Poverty from a Feminist Perspective
Childhood. Church. Votes. Wages. Feminist factions suggesting different causes for social gender divide. Lashings of history, building up to Slutwalk and Online feminism. Yes.
By Deborah Taylor
From the Feminist point of view, Sociological theories are seen as a tool to explain the male experience – largely ignoring the female one. This microcosmic argument can be expanded upon: That is, most elements of Society have been constructed for the benefit of the male experience and largely ignores the female experience.
The first major, published polemic about women’s rights and Feminism was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley). She argued that women are not naturally inferior to men and only appear to be so through a lack of education. They are socialised to be inferior and as a result they lack the fundamental human rights accorded to men. This is in direct contrast to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued in Emile (Everyman) (1762) that women should be denied any education other than to be educated for the pleasure of men. There is some poignancy that someone deemed by many to be the Mother of Modern Feminism died due to complications in the birth of her daughter Mary.
Almost a century later, John-Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote The Subjection of Women (1869), in which he argued that the oppression of women was a relic from ancient times, impeding humanity’s progress. This inspired the Suffragette Movement: Britain’s first major Feminist movement.
The National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies was founded in 1897, four years after New Zealand became the first country to allow women the vote. Six years later, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) formed the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union. The group’s militancy led to the Daily Mail mockingly naming them the Suffragettes. One could argue that, by giving them such a distinctive name, the Daily Mail scored an own goal.
Through a continued campaign of direct action, the Suffragettes’ most prominent campaign was for universal suffrage, that is voting rights for all (something they almost received in 1912). The Suffragettes employed many extreme campaigning tactics. We all know about how they chained themselves to fences but they also detonated explosives and burned post boxes. If arrested and incarcerated they went on hunger strike, whereupon they were either force fed or allowed to starve to near death. Finally, with the Representation of the People Act 1918, women were awarded restricted suffrage, finally receiving the same voting’s rights as men in 1928.
Two significant events then opened up opportunities for further enlightenment within the Feminist movement. Following the economic boom after the Second World War, married women were encouraged and able to remain in work, giving them a sustained economic liberation from their spouses. Furthermore, the development of oral contraceptives, available on prescription in Britain from 1961, took birth control away from the man, liberating women from the fear of unwanted pregnancies. As it took until 1967 for the Abortion Act to legalise abortion, this was a huge step forward. Women were now able to control their own finances and their own bodies.
Following from this, a publishing revolution occurred, with authors such as Betty Friedan (1921-2006), Germaine Greer (1939-) and Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) publishing their most influential works. The Feminist movement developed into four major factions, because everyone loves a faction: Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism.
Gender inequality and poverty today
Going back as far as Wollstonecraft’s day is the basic principle of Feminism, that there is inequality in society based on one’s gender. That women are seen, and as such further socialised, to be inferior to men. Linking gender inequality to poverty, one of the prime issues to look at is the difference between wages for men and women. Figures released by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (WEFGGI) in November 2011 show that Britain’s ranking for equal pay has dropped 20 places to 81, across the range of 135 countries.
Developed in 2006, the WEGGI tracks gender-based disparities across four main categories: Economic Participation and Involvement, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. Taking these factors in account, Britain has an overall position of 16, a drop of 7 places since 2006. The report concludes that no country has achieved gender equality.
What this shows is that gender inequality not only exists in Britain, but that it is getting worse.
The differing factions of Feminism disagree on the reasons for this growing disparity. Liberal Feminists believe that this is due to ignorance, gender prejudiced laws, and socialisation, incorporating religion. Marxist Feminism places the blame on Capitalism, that it allows the exploitation of women as a free work force. Radical Feminists blame the Patriarchal nature of society. All of these views have credence, but some are more helpful than others.
Feminism and patriarchal theology
The Church was previously the centre of the community; it disseminated the news and was the moral guiding point for its congregation. It was also the foundation of many Patriarchal beliefs within society, both etymologically and sociologically. It should be noted that the severity of gender prejudice within religion differs from one belief system to another. The predominantly Christian churches in Britain, though relatively forward thinking in their views towards women, are rarely well represented by them. Indeed, the issue of ordaining women priests is still powerful enough to cause schisms.
Although society is becoming more secular, and more multi-faith, the Prime Minister David Cameron can still declare that we are a Christian country. This shows that the allegiance between the male-dominated Cabinet and male-dominated church is as strong as ever.
Feminists do not seek to completely abolish religion, but to lessen its impact and influence on Society.
“History shows that the moral degradation of woman is due more to theological superstitions than to all other influences together” (Stanton1885, 389)
The media and Feminism online
Media now plays as much a part in today’s society as religion once did, but it still does not reflect an equal representation of women. In research for the Guardian, Kira Cochrane discovered that across news media, women represented between twenty to thirty per cent of contributors. Further evidence of this bias was shown when the BBC released the 10-person short list for its Sports Personality of the Year 2011, which contained no women.
There is a better representation of women online, on social networking sites and through online journalism and blogging sites. However, this also serves to provide another example of gender inequality, in terms of the amount of gender-based abuse women online tend to attract. An online report by Helen Lewis-Hasteley in the New Statesmen (2011) highlighted the often graphic and violent nature of such comments which are rarely, if ever, left in response to the work of her male colleagues. This is hardly an environment that would encourage more women to enter the media world.
“The sheer volume of gender prejudiced abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet’s festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a greatest hits of insults.” Lewis-Hasteley (2011)
This lack of visibility encourages a negative socialisation of women’s role in society. Women have previously seen as being primarily responsible for keeping the house and rearing the children. Even though the Feminist movement broke through many barriers in the 1960’s, such preconceptions are still prevalent in Britain today.
Feminism, Childhood and Hamleys
The stereotyping of gender roles from childhood is a major contributory factor, most notably in the bias within the toy industry, where girls’ toys tend to reinforce the servile, home keeping role, whilst boys’ lend themselves to more imagination and adventure. This then carries into the retailers. The supermarket chain Tesco was shown to be utilising a gender divide in its children’s’ magazines section, placing various titles in clearly defined and colour coded, ‘Boys’ or ‘Girls’ sections. An online campaign, orchestrated through Twitter in 2011, encouraged activists when visiting Tesco stores to swap titles between the sections.
A more cohesive and successful campaign was launched by Feminist blogger Laura Nelson against Hamleys in 2011, which had previously used pink signs for the ‘Girls Toys’ floor and blue signs for the ‘Boys Toys’ floor. This resulted in Hamleys changing their signage to more neutral colours, even though they deny this was in response to the campaign and was part of an ongoing plan to make alterations. However, “even if the third floor signage is no longer pink, that doesn’t make a huge amount of difference when all the toys are pink.” (Williams 2011)
Feminism and the workplace
Yet, this is just one example of Capitalism exploiting women, and encouraging the gender stereotyping to its own reward. Marxist Feminism argues that women are providing free labour; due to the unpaid hours they spend on housework and childcare. Performing the role into which they have spent their lives being socialised.
Where women have taken the ‘liberty’ of entering the work place, they have to do so under the duress of Double Shifts. Once they have finished their shift at their paid employers, they are still expected to work at home, in the task of maintaining the household. As such, they have been ‘allowed’ to help with the burden of the male breadwinner; they still retain the burden of housework.
Due to the workload women face in this respect, most work taken by women tends to be part-time. In figures released in October by the Office for National Statistics, 42% of women in work were in part-time employment, compared to just 11% of men. That part time work is poorly paid explains why jobs held by women are more likely to be below the level of minimum wage than those held by men. Part-time work is less secure than full time work, which contributes to the only occasion in the labour market where gender equality is almost reached; women account for 42% of the unemployment register.
Poverty as a Feminist issue
From this it’s not a huge step to seeing poverty as a Feminist issue. Women tend to work in office roles, retail or caring professions, as an extension to their roles in the home. As such, employment opportunities for women are at risk, most especially by the austerity measures being implemented by the coalition Government. Most of the low level Civil Service jobs being cut are office based and performed by women. The recession cuts into retail opportunities, as the retail market restructures to respond to the reduction in spending. More women are finding themselves out of work, or having to take lower paid jobs, or reduced hours.
A number of charities and institutions, including the Fawcett Society and Institute for Public Policy Research, have stated that the Government’s cuts to benefits and services will hit women harder than men. Once again, feminists are forming campaign groups, joining action groups and protests, to make their voice heard in opposing the cuts. Direct action from Feminist groups, with a history from the Suffragettes through Greenham Common, to those in the Occupy movement, keeps the issues alive in the public consciousness.
Maintaining a high profile of gender inequality and its wider implications remains the core principle of Feminist movements. New campaign and protest groups continue to grow from Feminist principles.
Feminism and Slutwalk
In response to a conviction rate of 6.7% for rape cases and a potential of 95% of forced violations being unreported, the Slut Walk movement was formed. The group argues that often a women’s sexual history, or clothing worn at the time of the assault, are among the defences used to acquit accused rapists. With this in mind, global marches were organised, in which women protested against being seen as sexual objects. This movement has its roots in Radical Feminism, which also touches on Raunch Culture; in the traditionally sexualised clothing many of the marchers wore.
The Body Fascism that the Slut Walk movement attacks is one further example of the exploitation of women. Although Raunch Culture has attempted to claim much of the behaviour that was considered to be masculine, the rise of ‘Ladette’ is a contentious occurrence. It does break down the stereotypes of ‘delicate’ behaviour that has been fostered upon women. But it appears to seek equality in a style of behaviour in men that is unhealthy and socially discouraged.
This idea of a ‘Lipstick Feminist’ can be seen as a reaction to the previous Feminist stereotype of the boots and dungarees supposedly favoured by the 1960’s Feminist pioneers. However, it can still be somewhat self-defeating, as it does still focus on how a woman looks, rather than what she has to say.
Spell out the letters, and what do you get?
In conclusion, the very nature of gender inequality has created the Feminist movement. The exploitation of women exists across all sections of society. The difference in pay across the gender gap contributes to the difference between the richer and poorer elements of society. This is further compounded by the roles in the workplace that decades of socialisation have imposed upon women.
Feminism has shown, and continues to show, that poverty is very much a feminist issue. Whilst the inequality exists in wages and on the work floor, women will find it a greater struggle to reach out of poverty. Whilst they are kept in poverty, they remain powerless, and men continue to oppress them.
Feminism is an important tool with which to examine society. Without Feminism, would the idea of Capitalism exploiting the Double Shift culture have been considered? Without Feminism, would poverty be seen solely as a result of low pay? Would it be nothing more than an exploitation of the workers?
Feminism is a perspective that explores the connectedness of concepts that other theorists simply do not discuss or even contemplate.
The Feminist movement has also proved that it can achieve much to improve equality, not just in the success of universal suffrage, but also in confronting the ongoing socialisation of stereotyping. Whether this is in marching in a bra on a Slut Walk, or campaigning against sexual segregation in retail outlets. It has become, as much as Marxism, a political theory, a tool for social dissection and a way of life.
Women of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your bra-straps.
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Office of National Statistics (2011) Low Pay Estimates April 2011 Office for National Statistics London
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1885) Has Christianity Benefitted Women? North America Review issue 140
Abortion Right http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/ Accessed 20/12/2011
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