Sylvia Walby’s book provides a comprehensive rebuttal of the notion that feminism is dead. Rachel Benson reviews this definitive account of feminism’s present and future forms, and the progression of feminism into the mainstream
Typing “Daily Mail” and “feminism” into the internet probably isn’t a wise move. Within seconds a selection of stories appear with headlines declaring feminism “irrelevant”, “passé” and “dead” (not to mention being responsible for widening the poverty gap, making men second-class citizens and killing the art of home cooking).
In Reclaiming the F Word Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune describe how “feminism is pronounced dead on a regular basis”. It is an argument that many feminists must be familiar with; therefore the opening lines of The Future of Feminism, the latest book from academic Sylvia Walby, are refreshingly defiant. They set out a clear agenda. Feminism remains active, relevant and powerful in the 21st century: “Feminism is not dead. This is not a postfeminist era. Feminism is still vibrant, despite declarations that it is over. Feminism is a success, although many gender inequalities remain. Feminism is taking powerful new forms, which make it unrecognisable to some.”
Sylvia Walby is professor of sociology at Lancaster University and the first UNESCO chair in gender research. Considered one of the leading authorities on gender studies, she has written extensively on gender-based violence, employment and the workplace, and globalisation. The Future of Feminism is thoroughly researched and draws upon a vast amount of evidence.
Walby begins by challenging the idea that feminism is ‘dead’ in the chapter ‘What Does Feminism Do?’ Beginning with the Seven Demands of the Women’s Movement, the chapter covers the economy, political representation and violence against women – with evidence which demonstrates the scale and diversity of international feminist activity. Unlike many recent feminist texts which focus on UK-based grassroots feminist organisations, The Future of Feminism has a broader perspective and presents the actions of UK organisations within a global framework, reflecting Walby’s current research on gender equality in the European Union. The chapter considers the work of The European Women’s Lobby, an organisation which provides information to decision makers in the EU, and the Beijing Platform for Action, a United Nations declaration of women’s empowerment.
The chapter’s message is clear. Feminist projects are local, national and global. They are vibrant and far-reaching. Walby’s sentences are precise, there are no wasted words and language is carefully chosen. She chooses to refer to the “gender regime” rather than the patriarchy, which she sees as an unspecific term implying an unchanging state of affairs. Just as there is “no simple, monolithic, timeless category of woman”, there is no single gender regime and she rejects simplistic readings of feminist issues. For instance, when considering political representation, Walby states “a simple correlation between the presence of women and feminist policies is not always found,” and later poses the question: “Do women have collective political interests that might be represented electorally, or are these interests either too individual or too diverse for such representation to be appropriate?”
However, there is perhaps a drawback to the wealth of evidence drawn upon: at times the chapter reads like a directory of feminist organisations, which are acknowledged but rarely fully examined. The book’s concern seems to be with feminism rather than feminists and occasionally suffers from a lack of focus on the individual. The academic feel of the writing is reinforced by the citations which are included within the text itself.
Although Walby focuses on contemporary feminism, she briefly discusses the concept of the wave, focusing on the changes between second wave feminism and the present movement. She draws a distinction between the “fluid form” and apparent spontaneity of second wave feminism and the “new forms of feminism” which she sees as defining the contemporary movement.
A considerable amount of The Future of Feminism explores the strategy of gender mainstreaming: the engagement of feminist organisations with government and the state. Developed in the 1970s and launched at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, gender mainstreaming was later adopted by the EU. It seeks “the integration of the gender perspective into every stage of policy processes”, securing gender equality a stable footing on the political agenda. Walby analyses how feminists have come to be found “within the institutions of power as well as outside them”, through a “move away from identity politics towards alliances, coalitions and networks” working at a global level. For instance, The UK Women’s Budget Group – a network of individuals, trade unions and NGOs – employs a strategy of gender mainstreaming as it engages with the Treasury to promote gender equality through economic policy.
While considering gender mainstreaming to potentially be “a powerful development in feminist theory and practice”, Walby argues that the ‘institutionalisation’ or ‘mainstreaming’ of feminism has led to the movement becoming “less visible than before”. She points to “a loss of visibility as an oppositional, protest-oriented social movement” as “new forms of feminism” move within institutions of power. However, she is quick to stress that “this is not the same as a decrease in feminist political activity.”
The book suggests that a strategy of gender mainstreaming has led to the mainstreaming of issues concerning women but the marginalisation of feminism. The text considers how some NGOs choose not to identity as feminist, despite pursuing feminist goals – sometimes because of fear of being side-lined due to the stigmatisation of feminism. Walby writes: “The term ‘feminist’ is used less often to describe projects which are working with allies or with the mainstream, even if feminist goals are sought. Hence, while these new organisational forms add to the power of feminism, they make it less visible, feeding the false impression that feminism has faded away.”
The book stresses the role played by organisations that do not identity as feminist yet are instrumental in working towards gender equality. Walby argues that trade unions are “among the most important of the mass organisations pursuing the feminist goal of equality in pay and conditions of employment. If the definition of ‘feminist’ is restricted to self-definition, then these mass organisations of women seeking to improve their pay and working conditions are not feminist.”
While the book focuses on gender mainstreaming, Walby is clear that this does not replace direct action and that a collective approach is needed. Feminism has taken new forms in recent years, but it is arguably still the old forms that remain the most visible (for instance, Million Women Rise, Reclaim the Night marches and the recent SlutWalks). It is the combined efforts of grassroots organisations, NGOs and government that lead to change.
In ‘Changes in the Context for Feminism’, Walby identifies the financial and environmental crises as gendered issues: addressing how public sector cuts disproportionately affect women and how the effects of climate change are experienced unevenly by men and women. Walby argues that the future of feminism, and the ability to face new challenges, lies with the coalitions of individuals, community groups, national organisations and governments: “Feminism can be less visible but no less significant when it forms coalitions with other social forces and joint projects, which are not explicitly labelled feminist.”
The Future of Feminism is polemical and optimistic. The title, defiant chapter openings and plethora of evidence all give a clear message: feminism in the 21st century is alive and well. The challenges we face may be changing, but our methods are adapting too.
Although fairly short, the academic style makes this is a pretty heavy-going read, with later chapters being particularly theoretical. The book tends to focus on the actions of feminist groups rather than the need for their existence; it is perhaps not a rallying call to activism but nonetheless is an optimistic look at contemporary feminism. The broad focus on a range of feminist issues at a local, national and global level makes The Future of Feminism a good handbook for feminists, especially those wanting to find out more about feminism’s relationship with the state and international organisations.
Feminism is not dead. It has a vibrant present, a promising future and a crucial role to play.