Each year I teach a lecture on gender and health to my third-year students. Alongside ideas of gender roles and norms, gendered power relations and the move from a binary to a spectrum understanding of gender, I introduce the idea of gendered health inequalities, the pay and status gaps and the impact of austerity. And each year at the start of my lecture I ask the students how many would define themselves as feminists. Routinely less than 5 of the 70 or so students raise their hands. When asked why, it becomes apparent that for my students, feminism is seen as a negative term, anti-men, radical and outdated.
In previous years, in an attempt to counter this, I’ve highlighted the ‘slut walks’ which focused on consent and rape, the TED talks on equality and misogyny, and the Fawcett Society’s Equal Pay Campaign. The wealth of material available to draw on for this year’s lecture was huge. From the blatant misogyny demonstrated in the Trump v Clinton debates in the US elections culminating in the branding of Hilary Clinton as a ‘nasty woman’, to the continued coverage of Theresa May’s shoe collection in the UK media, to the most recent examples of misogynistic and racist trolling experienced by Labour MP Diane Abbott, examples abound.
In response, messages about continuing inequality have been successfully spread through social media by organisations such as the Fawcett Society with their designation of November 10th as Equal Pay Day, highlighting the continuing gender pay gap. Or the #everydaysexism project which focuses on documenting episodes of misogyny experienced on a daily basis. A recent post by Susan McPherson, used a review of the film Suffragette, to explore the continued discrimination against women in the workplace, highlighting the slow journey towards improving rights and taking as an example the Athena Swan programme which has been implemented across UK Universities but is only slowly making a difference, with much discussion about how much of the difference is simply cosmetic. And these messages spread beyond social media.
The increasingly widespread recognition of the disproportionate impact of austerity and cuts on women has also meant that gender inequality has rarely been out of the news in recent months. Cuts to social security cuts to the public-sector employment, pension age changes and cuts to legal aid all negatively affecting women and proposals for a five-year lock on tax rises benefitting men. The umbrella group of 11 women’s rights charities, A Fair Deal for Women argues that these factors in combination mean that women will bear the brunt of measures to pay off the deficit. This view is echoed by the Geographer Danny Dorling who stated that:
“The pain has not been spread evenly and the pain to come will not be. Women suffer disproportionately from the way the cuts have been chosen. Other choices could have been made and still could be made.”
The impact on health, healthcare and social care is clear and pervasive. In a recent post, “Sisters Uncut“, Jen Remnant outlined the devastating result of austerity cuts on vital domestic violence services in the North East. In a more extreme step, Russia passed a law in the last week to decriminalise domestic violence, a move promoted by ultra-conservative politicians. There are weekly stories about the way in which cuts are affecting vulnerable groups consisting predominantly of women. These include stories about disabled people losing benefits, services, independence and, in some cases, their lives. About the crisis in social care and older people receiving inadequate care, to the detrimental of physical and mental wellbeing as well to dignity and quality of life. Then there is the ongoing political rhetoric blaming the ageing population for the NHS crisis, and the recent spate of stories about bed-blocking older people causing bed shortages in the NHS which ignore the fact that we have fewer beds per population that many of our European counterparts, and that social care and community support provision has been decimated. These stories dehumanise older people, the vast majority of whom are women. This is yet another example of vulnerable, disproportionately female groups being dehumanised and discriminated against by the predominantly male power elite.
The evidence is pervasive and overwhelming, and finally reaching my previously detached students. A couple of weeks ago I taught my regular year three gender lecture. At the end of the lecture, I got a small round of applause. The mood is changing. It is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge a feminist identity and to pay more than lip service to the idea of equality.
The term ‘Nasty Woman’, coined by Donald Trump in the final presidential debate, has become a battle cry, or as the Huffington Post terms it, a ‘viral call for solidarity’. The hashtag #IAmANastyWomanBecause was trending on Twitter within minutes of the televised debate and became a forum for women to express solidarity in the fight for equality.
The virtual fight took on a physical form three months later when, on 21st January 2017, millions of people (yes, women and men!) came together in major towns and cities across the US, UK and across the world to join the women’s march in protest at the divisive, threatening, discriminatory rhetoric that permeated the US elections and at the inauguration of Trump as US President. The march organisers declared that:
We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.
From Washington to Minnesota, London to Antarctica, estimates suggest that over 5 million women (and many men) marched in 673 events organised around the world. The central aim was to demonstrate unity around the message that ‘women’s rights are human rights’.
The importance of this movement is political and social, but it is also sociological. We have moved beyond a third wave feminism characterised by the postmodern challenge to second-wave grand narratives, and focusing on identity politics and the fluidity of gender identities. The potential emergence of a fourth wave (see for example Munro) has been linked to the rise of social media as a forum for challenging inequality and misogyny, and to a rise of activism. Within this context, the emergence of the ‘Nasty Woman’ brings new possibilities if we move forward with a sociohistorical understanding of where we are and how we got here. The call for solidarity at the heart of the ‘Nasty Woman’ movement can build on the second and third waves of feminism, acknowledging both the centrality of the patriarchal underpinnings of the neoliberal capitalist system within which we live and work and the importance of identity, gender fluidity and difference. When combined with the growth of protest and activism and the social media tools now available there is the potential for a new radicalism and a new generation proud to identify as feminists.