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Back to the Fifties: why women's rights are being eroded

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We’re 14 years into the 21st century, yet hard-won women’s rights are slowly being chipped away. It’s starting to resemble the Fifties all over again. Tanya Gold asks what’s going on…

Spain is about to criminalise abortion. The price will be paid in women’s lives: when abortion is criminalised, women die – from the drugs they will take illegally to end their pregnancies, from unsafe back-street abortion, from their own attempts to abort the child. It will also be paid in growing poverty, because it will be the poor who cannot access safe abortion as their families grow bigger and poorer: the rich will simply go abroad for the procedure. The final price is a growing knowledge that women are, where childbirth is concerned, still prisoners of their gender: a mother of many will never be economically independent – and she may have too many children to be a good mother at all.

This is not an isolated incident in a country that had suddenly decided to force women, no matter what their circumstances, to carry their babies to term (and please do not forget that child-bearing is life threatening, especially without a government-funded health service and especially when the vogue is for having children late); everywhere on earth female reproductive rights are threatened. Is this coincidental?

In America, local laws make it harder for women to access abortion and “Pro-life” groups pray outside abortion clinics and sometimes attack the people who work there; when prayer does not work, they lobby politicians for their closure. In England, a group called 40 Days for Life is praying outside abortion clinics for the whole of Lent, sometimes carrying photographs of dismembered foetuses as a way to express their “support” for pregnant women; in 2012 in Ireland, where abortion is illegal except when the mother’s life is at risk, a 31-year-old woman called Savita Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion, even as she miscarried at 17 weeks. If you’re Irish and want to go to England for your abortion? Well, you can; but you will pass pro-life adverts at the airport, again with the mutilated foetuses, to see you on your way. A woman, says this narrative, has no right not to bear a child. That is her purpose and her destiny, even in the 21st century.

Cynics will say nothing changes. With our soft bodies, distaste for outright aggression and inconvenient habit of giving birth to small people who need constant attention and love, women will always, with some significant exceptions, be the put upon sex; the fairer sex, is the passive-aggressive jibe. And for most of recorded history it has been so. Society has always divided along class lines (rich at the top, poor at the bottom) but always you find women at the bottom, crowded into the low paid professions and on benefits as we care for others – children, the sick, the elderly.

And if you want to express anger at your fate? Furious women as scapegoats is a constant in history: where I grew up, in Kingston in Surrey, they ducked “scolding” women (that is, aggressive women with opinions, who talked, women who fought back) in the Thames until the 17th century. This is mere detail, and the least of it. Men ran the world.

But in the 20th century things appeared to be changing. Women won the vote, divorce became easier and, in the great wave of progression that began in the Sixties, abortion was legalised in the UK. A glass ceiling was acknowledged as existing in the workplace, even if it did not break. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. The hated cult of “political correctness” made it harder for men to ordinarily assault women in their daily lives, with a wink and a nudge, while women were invited to laugh it off. Women could get mortgages by themselves, rape was made a crime in marriage and a female – Margaret Thatcher – if no feminist (in fact she said she hated feminists) became prime minister in 1979. Women, it seemed, were no longer entirely dependent on men. A fairer world beckoned even if it had not yet arrived; and the vast influx of women to parliament when New Labour won the General Election in 1997 seemed to show the way.

More than a woman

So what has happened? Consider the following truths: as I write, Britain has dropped, in 13 years, from being 33rd to 58th in the league table of female political representation globally. Only 23% of British MPs are female, and it is worse in local politics. Is it worth saying that, if you have enough female politicians, eventually women will benefit, because women understand their needs better and have walked in their shoes? Prime minister David Cameron has said he wants a third of his cabinet to be female, but he has failed. Since Cameron moved into number 10 in 2005, almost half of all Tory members have left – and four female Tory MPs have either quit during this parliament, or will leave at the end of it. Being a female is still the main story of any female politician’s career; even Thatcher’s over-glowing obituaries contained the not too subtly coded message – she did all this, and was a woman too!

Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader, has done more for equality than any person in recent years, trying to make companies publish their pay gaps – that is, what men and women are paid for doing exactly the same job – and is widely despised for her efforts; interviewers asked Louise Mensch, the former Tory MP, all about her beauty regime. The former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe was mocked for her looks – until she went blonde, lost weight and appeared on Strictly Come Dancing. The newspapers call female MPs “Blair’s Babes” and “Cameron’s Cuties”; David Cameron once told a Labour MP, Angela Eagle, to “Calm down, dear” in the House of Commons. (He also called his own MP Nadine Dorries “frustrated”, to much merriment on both sides of the house). This may sound like ribbing – if you are an idiot – but it is insidious. Dr Sarah Wollaston, who entered parliament in 2010, said it was like a “boys’ boarding school”. Women, in this world, are a joke. Cameron says his wife Samantha told him that women should be promoted, and so he will try to achieve it – does he realise how stupid this sounds? "I’ve been lobbied by my wife…"

And what else? The pay gap – the difference in average earnings between men and women – is currently 15.7%, and shows no sign of narrowing. Women are the nation’s carers; so, in this era of cuts, they suffer more financially than men. Only 20% of members of the boards of FTSE 100 companies are women and there is no real political will for quotas. “Corporate boards perform better when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds,” said a government report in 2011. But, it inevitably continued, “Many other people told us quotas would not be their preferred option as they did not want to see tokenism prevail. On balance the decision has been made not to recommend quotas.” Twaddle – if very well typed. Quotas work.

And so out of the workplace and to sex and violence. The Jimmy Savile scandal showed how easy it is for women to be disbelieved when they say they have been assaulted; and the statistics bear this out. Only a few weeks ago we learnt that only 10.5% of domestic violence allegations are passed from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service – so, either 89.5% of women are liars, a narrative the newspapers love, or domestic violence is still considered at best a minor offence, at worst the victim’s fault. (I have heard of religious women, after a beating, being told by community leaders to return and be better wives; then he might not hit you.) The rape statistics are as bad, cut with appalling anecdotal evidence; in a court case last year a 41-year-old man who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl was told by the judge that she was, “predatory… egging you on”. So he was freed. Note to judge – abused children often become sexualised, for obvious reasons, and can’t consent. Even girls.

Pop culture? The most famous and admired females on earth are, currently, Miley Cyrus, a singer who is almost always semi-nude and licking things, and the Duchess of Cambridge, a professional wife and mother who has never had a proper job, preferring to swaddle herself in florals and act as an outreach worker for an idealised Fifties marriage; in her engagement interview she called her fiancé “a great teacher”, even though she had to persuade him to finish his degree. And, I suppose, the Disney princesses, who will turn your child into a moron for money. Everywhere I look consumption is confused with feminism – Sex And The City Feminism, I call it. Shoes will not save us; nor will the odd guilt-free casual sexual encounter. Where is the meat – money, childcare and good jobs?

Light the way

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. So, without wishing to sound like a woman searching desperately for a Jo Malone London concession in the gloom: where are my candles?

I could fill pages with dull suggestions relating to the provision of childcare (which needs a profound change in corporate culture) and better funding for shelters for abused women (more than 100 women are turned away every day, for lack of funds). I could suggest lobbying the prime minister for better female representation or joining the Fawcett Society (fawcettsociety.org.uk), the most excellent feminist advocacy group in the UK. I could tell you to stop buying gender stereotypical toys, designed to tell girls not to be engineers, and, if a man gropes you on the Tube, to scream and call the police.

But I will start with this, which is addressed to men and women: stop saying you aren’t a feminist. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you hate men or hate sex but love body hair and dungarees – these are just slurs. (Women can be as misogynistic as men, see the strange case of Thatcher.) To be a feminist simply means you have noticed that women, in most cases, have it worse and this is shocking; no movement for change has ever succeeded without righteous anger and some knowledge of the facts – and calling yourself a feminist but not advocating for other women is like being an arm -chair physicist – it sounds good, but are you really?

What do you think? Are women's rights being eroded and if so, what can we do about it? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Photos: Rex Features

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