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A new women’s movement to fight the ‘new sexism’

We need a new women’s movement based on both gender and class politics, argues Jo Cassidy

Over 5,000 women were on the Slutwalk march in London and the annual Reclaim the Night march opposing violence against women is becoming increasingly popular. There has also been a resurgence of interest in feminist ideas, with blogs like the F-word getting more and more hits.
New writers like Kat Banyard and Natasha Walters have exposed the position of women in contemporary society and show that the fight for women’s liberation is not over. A survey of new feminist activists by Catherine Redfern, the founder of the F-word, reported that three quarters were under the age of 35, showing that feminism has had an injection of new blood.

New challenges
While it is undeniable that huge advances have been made for women, equally there are new challenges.
One new challenge is the rise of what has been called the “new sexism”. This is sexism in an era of formal equality. It is considered ironic and humorous but despite its modern packaging, it has a lot in common with the “old sexism” – it is about the objectification of women’s bodies.

Images of women’s bodies are ubiquitous in the media and advertising and women are under more pressure to conform to a certain body image than ever before. Moreover, we are told that the ‘choice’ to be a Page 3 model, or the ‘right’ to cosmetic surgery, is liberation.
The gains of the feminist movements of the past are being flipped on their heads and the images of sexism are being repackaged and sold back to us as empowerment.
This rise of the “new sexism” is more evident than ever on university campuses where beauty pageants are commonplace and lap dancing clubs advertise to male students at freshers’ fayres. At LSE, when a female student tried to challenge the sale of lads mags in the student union, she was confronted by a mob of men brandishing the Sun and hurling abuse at her.
Sexual assault on campuses is consistently overlooked. It was the words of ‘advice’ from a Toronto policeman to female students that they should avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ to protect their personal safety which sparked off the Slutwalk phenomenon.
The economic crisis has thrown up even more challenges for the emerging women’s movement. Cuts to the public sector will disproportionately affect women, forcing us to shoulder more of the burden for childcare and caring for sick and elderly relatives. Recent statistics show that unemployment amongst women is at its highest since Thatcher was in power.

What is the new feminism?
The media has picked up on the resurgence of feminism, but instead of analysing its politics they have chosen to focus on the fact that “new feminists” are more likely to wear Topshop jeans and lipstick than their foremothers. This is yet another attempt by the mainstream media to patronise and sideline women’s political action.
In fact, new activists are defined only by their dissatisfaction with the illusion of equality in today’s society. There is not one new feminist movement which is fully fledged or consolidated around concrete ideas. Rather, what we are seeing is a new desire amongst young women to stand up and fight for equality and liberation. However, in much feminist analyses, issues of class tend to be given a back seat. Class and gender are inextricably linked and a new women’s movement must have a class analysis and an orientation to class action.
The challenge is to create a new women’s movement which attracts new generations of young women, and which is militant and political. A movement which is based on class politics and understands that women’s oppression, racism and class domination are interlinked and to fight them effectively we have to look at the system which causes them.
Moreover, a new women’s movement will have to prepare itself to fight on two fronts: the ‘bread and butter’ issues such as the pay gap and free childcare, but also against the culture of ‘new sexism’, against the objectification of women’s bodies. The challenge is not to separate these two fronts, but to see them as interdependent and equally crucial in the struggle for women’s liberation.

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