Back to the Fifties: Stylist investigates whether society is going back in time

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Liberal values are being squeezed in all quarters as openly misogynistic, anti-gay and anti-immigration rhetoric becomes the norm across the political landscape. As feminists around the world refuse to slide quietly back into the Fifties, Stylist explores the realities behind the headlines

Illustration: Hello!Lucky

A month ago, more than five million women and men gathered in major cities around the world in an outcry against the new political order. They marched for such varied issues as legal abortion, a free press, prisoners’ rights, voting rights, affordable healthcare, gun safety, racial and gender equality, and a higher minimum wage. Another protest is planned by the organisers of the Women’s March for 8 March, International Women’s Day – a one-day strike called A Day Without A Woman. In the US, a further seven protests are planned within the next six months. The uprising has started, and the dominant mood is one of lamentation for the inclusive, tolerant value system we once saw as the bedrock of our modern society. We are afraid. And perhaps, we have cause to be.

The period around the start of the century was largely marked by a feeling of blithe optimism. A feeling that progress was being made in many sectors: borders were falling, war was subsiding, multiculturalism and the internet were making us all more tolerant of one another. On the whole, life was good.

Then the Twin Towers fell, London was hit by the 7/7 bombings and Lehman Brothers collapsed, plunging the world into recession and exposing a financial system so riddled with accounting holes that it may as well have been fabricated from Swiss cheese. What started as a century marked by optimism and progress has, since then, begun to feel like one marred by fear. And even more than fear, the distinctive feeling that we’ve begun to go slowly backwards.

From Brexit and travel bans to attacks on reproductive rights in the US and Poland, the events of the past year have shaken many of us. Even Prince Charles, speaking recently on BBC Radio 4, warned that: “We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive to those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the Thirties.”

More than ever, the political rhetoric seems to take darker twists, playing to extremes on either side of the political spectrum. So often we find ourselves sitting at dinner wide-eyed and exclaiming to our friends that the world has somehow flipped on its head, that our political landscape feels more like a surreal parody of itself. “When did everything turn so sour,” we ask our friends. “When, and how?” 

Our newsfeeds offer little guidance. They become ever angrier and it becomes evermore difficult to pick through the political hyperbole and sensationalist white noise. Are we really going backwards? Are our borders closing and our rights being eroded? And are there really echoes of the less progressive days of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties?

With these questions in mind, we’ve rounded up authorities in each field to give us – as much as possible – an impartial analysis of the current world events that are dominating our headlines and hearts.

Immigration: is the future building walls and closing borders?

Professor Andrew Geddes, professor of politics at Sheffield University, who was recently awarded a European Research Council grant for a project on the global governance of migration “We’re definitely moving into a period of less freedom of movement. In Europe alone, Spain, Hungary and Greece have built fences, the UK has fortified Calais and Austria has built physical barriers along the border of Italy in order to limit immigration. Protectionist policies in some countries are a reaction against this modern era of globalisation; the worry is that instead of improving matters, we’re just feeding into an inflammatory rhetoric and will actually end up damaging, instead of protecting, our economy.

In fact, the movement of people that we’re currently seeing in Europe isn’t exceptional and in terms of the numbers themselves, it isn’t unprecedented. Look at the early Nineties when the civil war in Yugoslavia saw 2.3 million people flee their homes or the mass-migration to the US at the turn of the 19th century for example.

What is different now is the political reaction to this movement. The current trend for walls and physical borders is a reaction against the modern era of globalisation but is often counter-productive. Trump’s Mexican wall, for example, is unlikely to lead to a reduction in immigration but an increase in illegal immigration as people seek new ways to enter the States. Ironically, Mexican immigration to the US has been falling in recent years as the country’s economy flourishes, but building a wall is likely to have a negative economic impact on Mexico, which will make more people want to leave.

Reducing immigration to the UK may also be counterproductive – the British economy depends hugely on a flexible labour force of migrant workers in several sectors, such as construction, hospitality and healthcare. The message from Brexit is that people want to see change, particularly with regards to immigration. But this comes at a price where border control is prioritised over economy. Whether we can reduce immigration figures without choking off the vital supply of workers the EU provides is a bold experiment to undertake with no guarantee of success.”

Gay rights: is the clock being turned back for the LGBT community?

Dr Sascha Auerbach, lecturer in modern British history specialising in legal culture and gender at the University of Nottingham “The threat to LGBT rights has been a huge cause for concern throughout Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency; it has caused many to fear that the gains made by the legalisation of same-sex marriage could be repealed. And, in fact, since January, a number of the bills and legislations which threaten the rights of LGBT individuals have come up for debate in the US. One particularly problematic draft executive order was leaked to the press at the beginning of February. Entitled ‘Establishing A Government-Wide Initiative To Respect Religious Freedom’, the order is designed so that anyone who has a religious objection to same-sex marriage can discriminate in the name of faith, without fearing legal reprisal.

While these issues are worrying, it’s very heartening to see how quickly the community mobilised to respond to this – two days after the executive draft order was leaked, thousands of protestors met at Stonewall Inn [the sight of the first LGBT rights protests in the Sixties] to make their feelings known. We’re now tracking these things in a way that we didn’t 20 years ago, when so much of this was undisclosed, unreported and unremarked.

And, in terms of real action, it’s important to note that many of the progressive legislations which came into force under Obama remain in place. One directive, which banned companies that work for the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual or gender identity, has been upheld – though Trump initially vowed to repeal it when he was campaigning. And while the religious freedom order has been a huge cause for concern, the President has said that he has no intention of signing it at this time.

Today, if one looks overall at Western society’s dealing with LGBT issues, it’s actually much more progressive than it’s ever been. That is not to downplay the considerable persecution and threat to physical safety that people from the LGBT community face every day, it’s just that overall, we are much more open and embracing of it than in any real time in the past.”

Reproductive rights: could abortion be made illegal in the USA?

Abigail Fitzgibbon, head of advocacy and campaigns at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) “The truth is that women’s reproductive rights are always under attack, but now more than ever. In the US, Trump has said that there has to be “some form of punishment” for abortion and re-introduced a ‘global gag rule’ in which US funding to any organisation involved in abortion services overseas is blocked [the Reagan-era policy has become a political seesaw – both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama repealed it while George Bush reinstated it]. Currently, America is the world’s biggest donor to family planning in the developing world, so this will have massive implications for women across the globe.

However, this kind of posturing isn’t unprecedented – just look to Poland and Dominican Republic last year, where both countries attempted to repeal laws to make abortion illegal in all cases, including rape. In fact, abortion in the UK technically still remains a criminal offence – albeit only in some circumstances thanks to the 1967 Abortion Act. What we need to remember is that since it came into existence, this act has been threatened by a continuous onslaught of new legislation, but none of it has been passed.

For example, anti-abortionist MP Fiona Bruce last year pushed for an amendment to explicitly ban abortion for sex selection – a move which could have conferred personhood on a foetus and consequently have had huge ramifications on the current law. Before that, in 2008, Nadine Dorries tried to reduce the time limit in which abortion would be legal. Both were rejected.

There is positive legislation too. On 13 March this year, Hull MP Diana Johnson is presenting the Ten Minute Rule Bill to Parliament, which advocates the decriminalisation of abortion. This conveys an important message to women both at home and abroad that Donald Trump is wrong when he says women who have terminations should be punished.”

Gender equality: are women’s rights in peril?

Sam Smethers, CEO of The Fawcett Society, the UK’s largest membership charity for women’s rights “Women are right to be worried about Britain’s future post-Brexit thanks to the Great Repeal Bill. This proposed law will allow government to convert EU law in domestic law, and scrap any EU legislation it does not wish to keep, including potentially many laws protecting part-time workers, the majority of whom are women.

It might seem unlikely that women’s rights will go backwards, but history can prove otherwise. The Fifties is a classic example, when the government tried to turn back the clock and encourage women to return to the home after they had been employed in factories during World War II – a model of economic disempowerment at a time when employment options were limited and only 1.2% of women went to university.

Meanwhile, you only have to look abroad to countries like Russia, where a bill aimed at decriminalising domestic violence has just passed through the first stage of approval in parliament, to see that women’s rights aren’t linear and cannot be taken for granted.

But aside from the headlines on Brexit, there are other issues we need to focus on. In the UK, pregnancy discrimination in particular is increasing. As many as 54,000 women are forced out of work each year, yet only 2% of cases end up at tribunal. Most women who experience discrimination never challenge it because there is a time limit of three months for a woman to bring a claim and they have to pay a £1,200 tribunal fee – stipulations that make this process prohibitive for many expectant mothers.

However, a seismic political change such as Brexit or Trump’s election doesn’t have to mean that women are left disenfranchised. It was after World War I – when women’s efforts helped secure an allied victory – that we were first given the vote in the UK. More recently, the election of one sexist man to the White House galvanised women to come together and march for equality across the world. Looking back over 150 years of feminist history, women haven’t won any of their rights without a fight, but regardless, we did win them. We should take heart at the power of our campaigning – that it doesn’t just defend our rights, it advances them.”

Civil rights: is society more racist today than ever before?

Dr Kehinde Andrews, associate professor of sociology at Birmingham City University and author of Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality, And The Black Supplementary School Movement (£23.99, Trentham Books) “In the UK and the USA post-Brexit and Trump, racist attacks have risen. There was a 41% increase in hate crimes in the UK the week following the Brexit vote, and reports of black people in the US being told to “go back to Africa” or physically attacked after Trump was elected.

That racism is still alive isn’t news and shouldn’t be surprising. It’s part of our society in the West. Racial attacks have gone up recently, but they’re nowhere as common as they were in the Eighties and Nineties. However, the rise of the far right – and the Klu Klux Klan’s endorsement of Trump – has emboldened people with racist views.

Liberals in America have been just as bad for race relations as Republicans, however. Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill is one of the worst things to ever happen to black people in the US. It introduced sentencing for crack cocaine (commonly associated with black people) that was 100 times harder than that for powder cocaine (associated with white people). It led to the mass incarceration of black people without trial. Then, under Barack Obama, almost every indicator of racial inequality got worse over his eight years in office because there was an attitude of “we can’t have a racist society if we have a black president”. Under him, the median net worth of the average black household slumped to 13 times less than the average white household, for example.

People give Theresa May an easier time than Trump because of what she’s said and not what she’s done. When she was home secretary, she brought in vans telling immigrants to go home, restrictions on migration and deportations, but because she talks about inclusion, she’s seen as more progressive.

To change things, we need to look at structural inequality rather than overt racist attacks. Racism isn’t just shouting at someone in the street. Racism is when society puts people of colour lower down in the housing, education, employment and welfare systems. In New York, half of all black people who are employed work in fast-food restaurants, and in the UK, unemployment among young black men in Birmingham is at 50%, so maybe we can start talking about those kinds of things first.

Black Lives Matter is one of the hopeful things as it treats racism as a structural issue. Hopefully everyone now understands that we do not have racial parity and we can open up the discussion in a meaningful way.”

The environment: do climate change sceptics mean we are doomed?

Jane Burston, head of climate and environment at the National Physical Laboratory in London, a centre of excellence in accurate measurement standards “The two main things people are worried about are climate change scepticism in the press, and high-profile figures talking about pulling out of commitments to limit climate change, such as the Paris Agreement [a treaty ratified by 131 parties, including the USA, the UK, Australia, India and China. The countries who have committed to it pledge to cut a proportion of their emissions which cause climate change, but it’s a different proportion for every country depending on individual circumstances and ambition].

However, a new survey shows that two thirds of the British public believe that climate change is mainly the result of human activities, which is higher than ever before and very encouraging. And what’s good about the Paris Agreement is that it’s a collective effort, so some more ambitious countries will pick up the slack if others fall behind. Any single country pulling out does not necessarily mean that it’s a disaster. In countries like the USA, individuals, businesses, local government and cities will be playing their part anyway, regardless of Trump’s intentions.

International agreements are important and help catalyse action, but a lot was already – and is – being done. The UK is on target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, and a study found that more renewable energy capacity was added in 2015 than coal, gas and nuclear combined.

If we continue to emit carbon at the current rate, then climate change is very worrying. Sixteen of the past 17 years have been the hottest on record and when we talk about limiting climate change to two degrees, it doesn’t mean that you will only feel two degrees warmer. The actual impact will be summers four times hotter than they are now and extreme weather events.

Now people are working out how we can best avoid it and adapt to it. The World Economic Forum surveyed all the delegates at Davos about what they believed to be the top five greatest global risks and number one was extreme weather events. So the people who are in charge are taking this very seriously and certainly don’t think it’s a hoax. We are radically rethinking how we use energy, and the top thing people can do to make a difference to their carbon footprint is to fly less. In the future there will be more interaction between different sectors – so an electric car battery could be used to power your home or help you cook your dinner. I feel positive about the future.”

Keep moving forwards

Feeling politically inspired? Stylist picks its top initiatives to help force change

Give a refugee a helping hand

Aid charity Help Refugees is currently recruiting volunteers to help residents at military camps in Greece ( Or show your support with a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt – proceeds go to Help Refugees (£19,

Help stop hate crime

Support LGBT charity Stonewall’s work by buying a ticket to the annual Equality Dinner on 24 March – a champagne reception followed by a dinner in central London featuring inspirational speakers between courses.

Protect your future

The Fawcett Society’s campaign #FaceHerFuture aims to highlight the need to protect women’s rights post-Brexit. Simply post a picture of yourself with a woman who is important to you, saying which area of woman’s rights you’re fighting for.

Show your support for reproductive rights

Want to help women in the Republic of Ireland assert their reproductive rights? Sign the petition to ‘Repeal the 8th’ – a campaign to decriminalise abortion and allow women full access to reproductive health services.

March against racism

Capitalise on last month’s momentum by signing up to #MarchAgainstRacism on 18 March ( The march is taking place on the UN’s Anti-Racism day, a global day of action against racism in all its forms, so get out those placards.

Sign up to fight climate change

Women’s Environmental Network ( campaigns for environmental justice through feminist principles, with events such as ‘How Can Periods Save The Planet?’, a talk on 8 March about the environmental impact of menstruation.

Words: Alexandra Jones, Georgie Lane-Godfrey, Helen Nianias