The 90s were a time of unbridled optimism. Fukuyama was so certain of the victory of Western liberal democracy that he excitedly declared that were witnessing the ‘End of History’, leaving us all to sit back smugly on our laurels, put our enlightened feet up and carry on reading the Guardian in the knowledge that all would be well. Society decided that we were living in a post-feminist world – (we’re so equal now, why do we need all those silly old ideals?) and we could concentrate on the important things like consumerism and working and not questioning the logic of endless growth through the magic of the free market. Times were good.
Growing up in this time, it never occurred to me to question the idea that progress was a linear concept with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning had surely been the horror of two world wars in quick succession, the middle the ensuing post-war consensus, and we could now see the end in sight – equality for all. I gradually started to have doubts however as the 90s progressed into the No Man’s Land of the Noughties (what a stupid name for a decade if ever there was one) and I struggled to square what I was seeing around me with the idea that feminism was no longer necessary. I started to see changes happening that didn’t fit into the idea that men and women were equal and got the unnerving feeling that perhaps things were actually moving backwards. Toy shops became segregated into pink and blue zones (seemingly to ensure that no boy would ever endure the humiliation of mistakenly buying a cooker) and burlesque made stripping acceptable to the middle classes. Taking your clothes off on stage became the norm for women, and Madonna suddenly seemed like a modestly dressed wallflower in comparison to the likes of Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Thanks to the internet, porn began to infiltrate society in a way never seen before and suddenly young women everywhere began to remove their pubic hair en masse. But, the mantra went, this was progress. Naked women were empowering, suck it up.
And then in 2016 things started to get serious. Brexit happened, followed by the shock of Trump. I had assumed ever closer cooperation and integration were inevitable parts of the future of Western democracy, which proves how much I knew. Brexit is nothing if not a huge Up Yours to an establishment which has overseen the biggest rise of socioeconomic inequality this country has ever experienced. When people can see others with more than them, they look for someone to blame. This time it’s immigrants, but we’ve already seen the demonisation of the disabled,the sick and the poor. Recent political events are unnerving and represent a backlash against many of the apparent gains of Western liberalism as it has clearly failed to deliver the economic and social equality it promised. People are beginning to realise that Neoliberalism is a con and I suspect we have yet to see the worst of the social and political turmoil that will follow.
I began to think about the words of Beatrix Campbell, whom I had seen speak at a women’s conference a few years ago, and how she had warned us that history was not in fact an endless march towards greater and greater equality, but rather that the gains made after the second world war were but an altruistic blip in the history of mankind and that it would soon be back to business as usual. I was shocked and saddened at the time, but recent events seem to be proving her right. As soon as Trump assumed office, he began his assault on women’s reproductive rights and suddenly something that women in the West had started to take for granted showed itself to be a right that could be given and taken away. The images of those men around that table, smiling as they exercised their powers to shape women’s lives, sickened me.
Then Russia did something so unbelievable that to maintain my 90s optimism became impossible. The Russian Parliament voted to decriminalise some aspects of domestic abuse – beating your wife and children is now only considered a civil matter and only punishable by a fine (rather than 2 years in prison). A move made even more infuriating when you take into account that 87% of Russian politicians are male.
And this is where I can’t help thinking feminism has gone wrong. Men are still indubitably ruling the world. Yes, we might have a female Prime Minister in the UK, but the number of female MPS remains pitifully low at just 191 of 650. It seems fine to insist on quotas as an essential part of gender equality in developing countries, but attempts to introduce them in the UK have never gone down well. The argument against them seems bizarre to me with people insisting that ‘It wouldn’t be fair’ and that ‘Women should get there on their own merit’ which if you look at it the other way round, implies that the reason they’re not there are the moment is because they’re not good enough, rather than due to the obvious sexism within politics and the wider world. The problem is that until we have genuine equality in the public sphere, women are reliant on men to protect and enforce their rights and I’m not sure I trust them to do so any more.