2013 is supposed to have been an amazing year for feminism. The increasing coverage of feminist concerns in mainstream media and the activism of campaigns like Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3 and the furore around getting Jane Austen onto £10 notes has been a welcome reminder both of how much support the feminist movement enjoys and of how much more work there is to do. Yet so many of the campaigns and controversies debated this year relating to feminism have been obsessed with image, representation and appearance. Transfixed by its own reflection, the media and many feminists within it seem to believe that Page 3 and Miley Cyrus’ twerking represent the most pressing obstacles to equality for women.
Although the objectification of women in visual culture is worth fighting against, what these images show is merely a mirror of women’s unequal position within our society. Women do not occupy many positions of power, women are under-represented in parliament, and women are paid less than men for the same jobs. Undervalued economically, side-lined politically and belittled socially it is little wonder that many men can’t see what harm there is in having a semi-naked near-teen in a national newspaper. Society’s not giving the message women are good for much else.
Part of the complacency that seems to characterise feminist apathy towards campaigning on political and economic issues seems to be grounded in one of the most pernicious myths of neoliberalism, namely that society is always progressing and improving. This fallacious belief that the gender pay gap will close itself, that women will gradually be more and more represented in positions of power and that, as we become more tolerant and open, domestic and sexual violence will fade away is incredibly dangerous. Austerity, and here I mean the ideology of permanent austerity that David Cameron pontificated about from his gold throne poses the greatest threat to feminism of our generation. With £41 billion of cuts to public services and welfare planned in spite of growing GDP, it is clear now more than ever that austerity and the permanent reduction of the state is a political belief and not the necessity Cameron originally claimed.
Under the ideology of austerity women are facing what is termed by the Fawcett society as ‘Triple Jeopardy’. That is: cuts to vital frontline services, job cuts in the public sector where two-thirds of jobs are held by women and benefit cuts. Under the current government maternity and paternity pay, which of course is largely taken by women, will be frozen from 2015 for five years which means a huge cut in real terms.1 The gender pay gap, already 19.6% among all workers or £5000 a year on average, increased this year for the first time in five years.2 Additionally 62% of legal aid recipients are women and forthcoming cuts mean that 361,200 women will lose access to legal aid.3 Violence against Women services which include centres for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse were cut 31% between 2010 and 2012.4 The effect of these cuts are particularly pronounced where race intersects with gender. A report by academics at the University of Warwick estimates that unemployment amongst Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women has risen in Coventry by 74.4% compared to 30.5% among white women between 2009 and 2013.5 To anybody who believes these “savings” to be a necessity I would point out that George Osbourne still manages to find enough money in the budget to grant a £3 billion annual tax break to the oil and gas industry.6
Concrete economic and political issues have been pushed aside in the mainstream media partly because spurious sexual controversy is more marketable but largely because these cuts have overwhelmingly affected young, working class women, especially ethnic minorities, dependent on the state. That is to say not the middle class feminists in the media. But as a middle class feminist myself I know that you don’t have to be directly affected by these cuts to be angry about them. I also know that we’re all only a firing or a complicated health problem away from depending on the state to take care of us. Austerity is causing marginalised women in this country real suffering. Until we challenge neoliberal logic and affirm the value of state as the best way to protect women from an exploitative market and a misogynistic society, we have no hope of achieving equality. Women need to stand in solidarity with those affected by the cuts and the ideology of austerity and recognise that before we can start to address the representation of women in visual culture, we need to deal with the reality that that representation reproduces. Austerity is a feminist issue.