TO WHAT EXTENT IS WOMEN’S LIBERATION BEING HINDERED BY DISUNITY AMONGST FEMINISTS? This paper will attempt to discuss what feminism is, what the movement has achieved in recent years and whether the discord between the various factions within the feminist movement is having a detrimental effect on women’s fight for equality. “Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color (sic), working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything lees than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement(sic). (Barbara Smith 1979; quoted in Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua eds 1981, 61: Kramarae C. & Treichler, 1985, A Feminist Dictionary, Pandora Press, London)
The Women’s Movement is not a new phenomenon, the first written documentation dates back to the 16th Century but the first wave of feminism was seen between approximately 1850 and 1930. The most widely known feminist movement was that of the suffrage campaign which started in the 1860’s when the first petition was presented to parliament demanding the right for women to vote on equal terms with men.
By 1918 women were allowed to vote but only those over the age of thirty years old who owned property or were married to a property owner. The suffragettes famously won the right for all women to vote on equal terms with men in 1928. The struggle to gain the vote for women was a united mass movement, however the women’s movement has since broken down into factions, each seemingly with their own ideologies and their own approach to tackling the issues.
Although there are many factions now to the Women’s Movement, such as Black Feminists, Lesbian Feminists and Marxist Feminists, the three main tendencies could be said to be Radical Feminists, Socialist Feminists and Liberal Feminists during the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a lot of unrest amongst the feminist movement. Radical Feminists believe the root of women’s oppression was men. They identify “the social system as a patriarchal structure premised on competition, power over others, and male superiority. (Ryan B, 1992, Feminism and the Women’s Movement, p55)
The system of male power over women is what oppresses and discriminates against them. Radical Feminists take the social constructionists view that gender differentiation is not defined by biological differences. Biology does not equal destiny. Socialist Feminists, sometimes called Marxists feminists, believe that it is the system that is the problem. They believe that whilst a small minority of people, mainly male, have the majority of the wealth and power equality is impossible.
They could be associated with anti-imperialist groups and left wing political parties. Liberal Feminists favour reform rather than complete change. They are known for adopt a much more formal strategy in the fight for women’s liberation such as lobbying governments and trying to change legislation through influence rather than direct action like the Radical Feminists who they thought went too far. The Second World War brought about many changes for the women’s movement. Women were called away from the traditional patriarchal family to work for the war effort.
As many of the women had young children to care for the Government provided nursery care. This was to be women’s first real taste of how life could be if they were not tied to the home. However with the end of the war women’s rights reverted to the way they had previously been. Women were forced out of jobs to make way for the returning servicemen, and those who still wanted to work after their new found taste of freedom found themselves without any childcare facilities as the Government closed down the nurseries.
So women were forced back into the home. Radical feminists could argue that there was a conspiracy amongst men, the Government at the time was predominantly male, to remove the competition for employment and repress women in order to keep them dependent on their male partners. Thus giving the man total control over his wife, he as the breadwinner provided all for her and she in turn provided all for him, both in looking after the home and meeting his sexual needs on demand.
Marxists Feminists could argue that the Capitalist Employers were pleased to have women removed from the employment market because male labour is more productive and if the only paid worker in a house in the husband then the Capitalists would be able to exploit him. They could work him harder for less with little worry of repercussions, as the sole breadwinner for the household he would not want to jeopardise his only source of income.
The 1960s saw a drop in the birth rate as people began to trust the guarantee that the welfare state would look after them in the their old age so no longer needed to have large families to look after them in their twilight years. The introduction of labour saving devices into the home meant that women had more free time and gradually became more restless at home. An economic boom at the same time meant that there were labour shortages and as a result certain sectors of the employment market were extended to women, mostly part time.
However women were very poorly paid in comparison to men and the gap between men and women’s earnings only began to close in 1970s with the Equal Pay Act, passed in 1970, which was supposed to ensure equal pay for the same job and eradicate overt sexual discrimination. Employers were given five years to phase in the Act, however even in 1975 when the Act was fully operational and legally binding women still retired earlier than men, which has only recently been changed, and benefited less from company pension schemes.
The main fault of the Equal Pay Act was that the woman had to prove that she was doing equal the work of a male counterpart, thus leaving companies plenty of opportunity to assess the work as different in some way and pay the woman less. Whilst the Equal Pay Act was not perfect it did go a considerable way to closing the gap between men and women’s pay. The Sex Discrimination Act was also passed in 1975, designed to outlaw sexual discrimination in the workplace, from recruitment and training through every stage to dismissal, redundancy or retirement.
Only certain occupations were exempt from the Sex Discriminations Act such as certain posts within the Armed Forces. The Sex Discrimination Act also covered education. Feminists claimed that the education system was patriarchal and discriminated against girls. Subject matter was very different for boys and girls. Girls were encouraged to learn domestic science and needlework and boys were encouraged learn crafts such as woodwork and metalwork. Women at this time were not recognised as being worthy of an education.
It was commonly considered a waste of time and resources to educate a girl who would not put her education to good use, as she was biologically predestined to become a wife, mother and homemaker, caring for her family and husband. The education girls received, or lack of it, meant that they left school with few skills which disadvantaged them in the job market, hence they were led into traditionally female roles such as cleaners, secretaries, telephonists etc. The 1944 Education Act did little to redress the balance.
The Act was supposed to encourage social mobility and provide a meritocratic education. The fact that the eleven plus examination, to gain entry to grammar school, was equalised in boys favour, as recently as 1960 because girls were outperforming them indicates that it did not really work. Although girls were able to go to grammar school the number of girls who left their education between the ages of fifteen to seventeen was proportionally higher than the boys.
The reason fewer girls opted for higher education could have been due to their parent’s reluctance to support them, or sum feminists claim that if girls are socialised into ideas of femininity they will conform to the expectations and consider appropriate feminine roles. Up until the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, only fourteen years ago, it was still down to the discretion of the school whether they allowed girls to study some subjects. In the 1980s the government sponsored a scheme called G. I. S. T. Girls in Science and Technology, aimed at breaking the taboo that girls were not good at science.
By the 1990s girls were systematically outperforming boys at school, generating the gender gap debate and creating political concern that if men fall by the academic wayside there will be high unemployment amongst men in the new economy, indicating that the government still takes the patriarchal view of the man as the breadwinner, in a position to provide for his family. It has been suggested that the effort to address the balance and create equal educational opportunities has gone too far and has tipped the balance in favour of women.
Feminists have claimed a victory and argue that still not enough has been done and if boys are underachieving it is not because the balance has been tilted in women’s favour. They claim is more likely because women now feel worthy of an education and have more motivation to succeed as there are good careers available to women now. A common problem for all feminists is patriarchy, the dominance of men over women, which could be said to originate in the household.
The traditional family, the male as the breadwinner going out to work whilst the subservient female stays at home to cook and clean and attend to his every need, which was considered the ideal for many years, subscribes to the idea of male domination and legitimises female oppression. Prior to the Second World War women had very few life choices. It was taken for granted that little girls would grow up to get married, have children and become housewives and for many years this tradition was not questioned. A woman’s biology determined her destiny.
The nature versus nurture debate is still a contentious issue. Do women naturally have a maternal instinct, which lends itself to the role of mother and carer, or is it socialised into females? “Parsons (1959) maintains that women have an instinct to nurture as a result of their biologically-based role in reproduction, and this makes them ideally suited for an ‘expressive’ role in the nuclear family”. (Garrett S, 1992, Gender, p6) Talcot Parsons was a Structuralist who believed that the Nuclear Family was the perfect relationship, the woman was the meek nurturer and the man was the supporter.
For children to develop into stable adults they must be raised with these two role models. Feminists fundamentally disagree with Parsons and argue that there is no biological reason for women to stay at home and men use it to legitimise the exploitation of women for their own means. As women are able to bear children they are often associated with being closer to nature whereas men are more associated with culture and learned behaviour. The woman’s ability to bear children has seemed to be her biggest personal hurdle in the fight for equality in recent years.
In a work environment a woman will always have to take a career break to have children whereas the man does not have to. Women’s income can be affected by having children, they may have to rely on their partner for support both financially and emotionally or if they do not have a partner they may have to rely on the welfare system to support them financially and bear the burden alone. The Feminist Movement could be said to have highlighted the inequalities and brought about changes in the home either directly or indirectly.
Whilst there is a common goal amongst feminists groups there is also conflict between ideologies and politics. Socialist feminists are considered separatists, lesbian and radical feminists to be man-haters and Marxists Feminists accused all women’s groups of being capitalist. Separatist feminists accused heterosexual women of being male-defined and the Liberal movement was generally disliked by other factions. (Ryan B, 1992, Feminism and the Women’s Movement, p56) Whilst there may be divisions between the varying feminist groups it could be said that what unites the feminists is greater than what divides them!