It’s usually considered that when feminism engages with state institutions, it loses its radical edge and became compromised and weakened. But is that really the case? Jonathan Dean argues that mainstream women’s organisations are actually a lot more radical than they are given credit for, and that we can be optimistic about the future of British feminism.
It is well known to readers of the f word that feminism is frequently portrayed as anachronistic and irrelevant. I shall not discuss this particular issue here. What I will discuss is a related, though different, perception of feminism. This is the view that feminism, as well as having declined, has become less radical to the point that, where it does exist, it is seen as watered-down; lacking the critical force it once had. Crucially, this view can be found both within the popular media (I thought it was implicit in the recent BBC4 documentary Angry Wimmin), but it is also a view frequently expressed by both academic feminists and veterans (for want of a better word) of second-wave feminist activism. The term ‘deradicalisation’ could, I argue, be used to describe this view of contemporary feminism. Whilst it is accurate up to a point, it overlooks important processes going on within contemporary British feminism, as I shall explain.
The ‘deradicalisation’ idea is based on a particular set of assumptions about the recent history of British feminism, centered around the view that contemporary feminism has completely lost its more radical and critical dimensions. Often, but not always, the view is expressed with a distinct tone of melancholy, a longing for a return to the ‘good old days’ of militant activism. Basically, this view contends that there was once a time (typically around the mid 1970s) when feminism attracted large-scale grass roots support and was militant, hard-line, radical and uncompromising. Whilst there were differences between the various strands of feminist thought, it is widely assumed that they all shared a commitment to radical, grass-roots activism. What is also crucial is that they also tended to regard looking to the state, or British political institutions more generally, as illegitimate from a feminist perspective. Put simply, these feminists took the view that if political institutions are run according to patriarchal / anti-feminist principles, then feminists would have to make severe compromises if they were to look to these institutions for support.
There is a perception that some time around the mid 1980s, feminists moved into British state institutions (the Labour Party, the Greater London Council (GLC), other local councils, the Equal Opportunities’ Commission (EOC)) and that in doing so, they lost their links with grass-roots support, and consequently became less radical. Feminists are therefore now seen as simply trying to make small-scale reforms within these institutions, rather than expressing grander visions of more fundamental change. Often, there is seen to be a trade-off between remaining autonomous (i.e. not becoming involved in political institutions) but being faithful to your principles on one hand, and having influence within decision-making bodies whilst compromising your principles, on the other. In the BBC4 documentary, Linda Bellos epitomised this viewpoint, arguing that she preferred to do her politics on a shoestring but remain true to her principles. She was deeply critical of feminist involvement with the GLC which she saw as leading to feminist principles being compromised.
It is no coincidence that the two terms used to describe the movement of feminists into institutions have slightly derogatory connotations. The word ‘femocrat’ originated in Australia but has become used as a general term referring to feminists, or women with feminist sympathies, working within state bureaucracies. It is derogatory to the extent that it emphasises feminist involvement within institutions which are seen as being anti-feminist: it implies that these women have compromised their principles, or ‘sold out.’ In the BBC4 documentary, the feminist journalist Julie Bindel highlighted this view when she talked rather disparagingly of the increasing feminist involvement with the GLC in the mid-1980s: ‘I couldn’t bear all that town hall feminism… femocrats we called them,’ she says.
So, the term ‘femocrat’ conjures up images of women working in state instituions without significantly changing those institutions. Similarly, the term ‘liberal feminism’ has roughly similar connotations, with its emphasis on the involvement of women in public life without having a theory of ‘systemic’ oppression.
But is this view of ‘femocrats’ and ‘liberal feminism’ justified? Well, for the most part, no. The stereotyped view of liberal feminism is basically just an artificial construct created by more radical feminists. This might all sound rather abstract, but this is a hugely important issue for contemporary feminists in the UK. I would argue that the whole debate is based on an artificial opposition between two kinds of feminism: radical, autonomous, grass-roots feminism on the one hand, and reformist liberal feminism operating inside British political institutions on the other. This is especially the case in some strands of academic feminism, in which one finds a strong tendency to debate the pros and cons of feminist engagement with ‘the state.’ This is interesting up to a point, but it is all rather abstract and, as such, tends to reinforce certain negative stereotypes of liberal feminism. What it overlooks is the way in which, while it is true that feminists have recently become more willing to work with, rather than against, British political institutions, this does not mean that British feminism has necessarily lost its radical or critical edge.
A quick look at the Fawcett Society, arguably the most important pro-feminist organisation in the UK at present, confirms this view. In many ways, Fawcett adheres to the stereotype of liberal feminism outlined above: they emphasise campaigning within British political institutions (e.g. by asking politicians to address women’s issues, and trying to get more women into the House of Commons), and a lot of their proposals seem relatively modest. For this reason, when more radical feminist authors mention the Fawcett Society, they are often rather dismissive of the organisation. However, this view overlooks the ways in which Fawcett’s policy agenda is in fact informed by a much more radical vision of social transformation. Whilst their proposals in terms of issues of women’s political representation (e.g. use of all-women shortlists) might seem fairly moderate, their proposals on issues such as maternity and paternity leave, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and reform of the EOC would all require quite profound changes in the structure of gender relations in the UK.
When one reads their literature, which outlines the need for a new ‘equalities’ body to replace the EOC, one sees that they are profoundly critical of the popular assumption that feminism is no longer necessary and that all remaining inequalities are simply a matter of choice. In that sense, there is a belief in the need for large-scale structural change to combat existing gender inequalities, as well as an emphasis on the need to profoundly alter public perceptions. These moves are arguably more in keeping with radical feminism than the stereotype of moderate liberal feminism outlined above.
Furthermore, their proposals regarding maternity and paternity leave would require a profound shift in popular understandings of the work/life balance, as it would lead to a less aggressively competitive understanding of the job market. In addition, their biting criticisms of the criminal justice system emphasise that nothing less than a profound shift in understandings of gender within the system will be sufficient. In this sense, it is profoundly misguided to regard an organisation like the Fawcett Society as a moderate liberal feminist organisation which only seeks to advance small-scale change within existing institutions. Whilst the Fawcett Society may not be radical feminist in the traditional sense, its vision is nonetheless fairly radical (given that its goals would require a profound transformation of gender relations), even though that vision may be informed by liberal rather than radical feminist insights. One must also bear in mind the fact that contemporary feminist/gender equality organisations are typically not especially resource-rich. Kate Bellamy of the Fawcett Society pointed out that she would like to see Fawcett engage with more activist forms of campaigning but that, at present, this not really feasible given the organisation’s limited resources.
In terms of the issue of liberal versus radical feminism, Women’s Aid is an interesting case. Women’s Aid’s roots are in the more radical grass roots feminism of the 1970s, but have since become a more professional campaigning organisation. Women’s Aid publishes smart, glossy documents, often plays an advisory role in the formation of relevant policy, and also uses celebrity endorsement to further its aims (Will Young is a Women’s Aid Ambassador at present!). Thus, a case could be made that Women’s Aid has lost its critical edge in moving form a more radical to an arguably more liberal position. However, this is categorically not the case. A cursory glance at Women’s Aid’s policy proposals reveals an emphasis on the need for profound changes in how domestic violence is treated by politicians, the legal system and the public at large. Crucially, Women’s Aid emphasise how nothing less than a profound change in gender relations will be sufficient to end domestic violence, given that they see the latter as being rooted in historically entrenched structures of male supremacy. Thus, although Women’s Aid has moved from a defensive to a more engaged position in terms of state institutions, the idea that this necessarily compromises their ability to push for broader, more radical change is fundamentally unsound. Women’s Aid has maintained its critical, uncompromisingly feminist message despite having become more willing to engage with British political institutions.
This points towards a number of conclusions. Whilst radical feminism as an activist movement is arguably less influential than it used to be, a number of radical feminist concerns can still be found both in academic and activist feminist circles. Of particular interest here is the issue of feminist involvement with the state and political institutions more generally. In much feminist literature, one often finds a reluctance to endorse feminist involvement with state institutions: in fact, there is often something of a romanticisation of autonomous feminist activity. This view argues that engagement with British political institutions forces feminists to compromise, reducing the effectiveness of the feminist critique. However, when one looks at the Fawcett Society and Women’s Aid, one can see that this view is not helpful: whilst these organisations do engage with the state, they are still willing and able to articulate visions of a profound shift in gender relations. Therefore, the view that feminists used to be radical militants and are now all moderate liberal reformists simply does not hold. It is true that since the 1980s feminists have looked increasingly to existing political institutions to further their aims, but this has clearly not resulted in an automatic compromising of feminist principles.
This means that feminist engagement with British political institutions is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, some of the major feminist advances of the twentieth century could only have been achieved through particular policy changes. It is therefore important to resist having a romantic view of militant and autonomous politics, and to accept that engaging with existing British political institutions is necessary for feminism to be effective.
Similarly, what this also shows is that the distinction between radical feminism and liberal feminism might actually be quite problematic. This is somewhat remarkable given that these two positions are often seen as polar opposites. Liberal feminism might be characterised as a feminism which is not in any way prescriptive in terms of the sort of sexual, cultural and economic choices woman make, and this is certainly the basic view underpinning both the Fawcett Society and Women’s Aid’s campaigning activities. However, this does not mean that their views are not radical, as both organisations are seeking broad structural change.
What this points towards is that it would be worth our while trying to move beyond the distinction between radical and liberal feminism. Perhaps what we are dealing with might be called ‘radical liberal feminism.’ It might be a bit far-fetched to try to persuade everyone to join together in a big radical liberal feminist coalition, but it might be a helpful term to use. It could have the potential to help devise a feminism which could gain popular support by moving away from the more alienating aspects of traditional radical feminism, but without losing the feminist vision of a radical transformation of gender relations. Given that radical liberal feminist sentiments are fundamental to the Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid, and indeed many of the views expressed on this website, perhaps the seeds of a large radical liberal feminist coalition are already in existence!
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think it is important to try to think beyond rather false oppositions (such as liberal vs radical feminism) which can have a rather paralysing effect on feminist activity. Given that the seeds of a ‘radical liberal feminist’ movement are perhaps already in existence, it might be worth our while thinking about trying to establish connections between ‘grass roots’ activity (such as this website) and more formal organisations such as the Fawcett Society and Women’s Aid. These groups are arguably the most significant feminist groups in the country, and have similar agendas, and might allow for a greater flow of ideas between grass-roots groups / sites and more formal organisations which have closer links with established political institutions. These ideas are all rather cursory at the moment, and I am not really sure how they might be put into practice, but I think it would help the feminist cause if these groups were able to join together a little more rather than exist in isolation from one another.
I am trying to look at some of these issues in my PhD thesis, and would be very interested to hear what fword readers think about the issues addressed in this article.