On 23 October 2010, I attended the Feminism in London 2010 conference. The notes below are from the introductory panel entitled “Women in Public Life”. Please let me know of any errors or omissions.
Chitra Nagarajan (Organising committee of Feminism in London)
Chitra gave a brief welcome form the organising committee of the Feminism in London 2010. In referring to the current political climate and government cuts, she mentioned the old adage “If you’re not at the table, you’re the meal”.
Ceri Goddard (Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society)
Ceri was going to discuss how women are represented in the public and media. The Fawcett Society is a leading campaigner for women’s rights and has been doing so since the 1860s when women were fighting for their right to vote. Ceri discussed the consistent failure of governments to enable feminism and economic policy to meet. These were dealt with as to separate entities and at no time did economic policies take into account what was best for women. The new government will hit women the hardest as they are making cuts as opposed to using taxes to derive their income. Sixty percent of public sector jobs are held by women and these are the jobs that are going to be cut. One-fifth of women’s income comes from benefits and this is what is going to be cut (as opposed to 10% of men’s income).
The Fawcett Society is non-partisan. When the elections were taking place, the Fawcett Society offered Gender Impact Assessments of the parties’ budget plans. Only the Labour and Green Parties committed to this. Now, Fawcett have filed papers with the High Court seeking a Judicial Review of the government’s recent emergency budget. This legal action came about because Fawcett believe that the government did not pay due regard to women’s issues with the emergency budget. The law does state that the government should collect data on men and women and how policies impact them yet despite numerous requests, the government has not been able (or willing?) to prove that they have collected this data at all.
Ceri said that it hits all women and it hits the poorest. Child benefit has been cut yet somehow tax benefits to married couples have been increased. The recession is simply a cover for a wider, backwards ideological shift. Feminism is not just about equality in the status quo; it is about changing the status quo and about equality for all. We need to value human beings over cash and these discussions should become part of our everyday life.
Baroness Kennedy is an expert in human rights law, a member of the House of Lords and author of the book Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice.
Baroness Kennedy started off by saying that women are doubly disadvantaged and it all comes down to two words: power and money and how “every single bit of exploitation… can be traced back to these two things”. It is important to understand the struggles of the past in order to understand our present. Half of the students in law school are women and yet there is one woman in the Supreme Court. A lot has happened but not a lot has changed. We realised in the 1970s that you have to shine light into institutions if you want to change anything. We talk about women in public life but what about the poor women? Well, the reality is that if we don’t take on those institutions then we can’t make a difference.
Baroness Kennedy mentioned Polly Toynbee who is endlessly ridiculed because she analyses the small print of policies and how they affect people. We need to stop these attacks on women who are paying attention! [My note - This is so important because we do tend to turn on women who are ‘making a nuisance of themselves’ when we should be sitting up and listening to them and most of all, supporting them].
We were told that it was just a matter of time. We’ve been told it now and we were told it in the 1970s. We’ve been lead to believe that over time, women will grow to become equal with men but it is still not happening to such an extent that some have come to believe in positive discrimination. Women are still not seeing themselves in these roles; we are waiting to be asked. We have to keep fighting for women Legal Aid is being cut and most of the lawyers are women fighting for the rights of the most disadvantaged. We are all advocates for other women.
Lindsey Hills (25-year-old mother, member of YWCA and mentor to young people)
Lindsey came to talk about the perceptions of young motherhood in public life. She was a teenage mother and was lucky to have the support hat she did. She started at the YWCA when her child as 8 months old and they gave her the support to move on from a negative relationship. She became aware of the stereotypes and how there are no positive perceptions of younger mothers even though it can be a positive experience that encourages women to succeed. As a young mother, she was gossiped about, ridiculed and judged and told by others that she had let her own mother down. The perception is that young mothers have no drive to succeed and yet Lindsey continued her studies in tourism whilst looking after her child. The perception is that young mothers are either irresponsible for getting pregnant or they are deliberately getting pregnant for the benefits but this has no bearing on reality.
Lindsey described how unhelpful the local council was when she tried to get a place of her own. They basically fobbed her off for a whole day and she sat at the council offices for hours until the emergency housing team came onto duty that evening. They first put her into a B&B and then a hostel and finally a flat that was in another neighbourhood, away from her family and friends. She was told that she had to accept it or lose it. The rent was £1,600 a month and so Lindsey could not afford to work, otherwise she would lose her housing benefits.
Thanks to support from her family and the YWCA, she now works part-time for a children’s centre and the Scouts and she does volunteer work for several organisations. That is not a lazy mum! Lindsey has worked with the YWCA to set up the Respect Young Mums and More Than One Rung campaigns and seeks better careers advice, skills and training for young women.
Rahila Gupta (Author of Enslaved and Provoked)
Rahila focused on journalism and writing and how it affects women. She spoke of visibility and fields of vision and asked how do you qualify for the description of women in public life? The media turns people into spokespersons for entire communities but on whose behalf do we speak, should we speak? Despite wanting to believe the opposite, there is still great racism and sexism in the most liberal of spheres (women of colour are only ever called upon to speak about the issues facing women of colour). Rahila questioned to what extent our narratives are diluted by the rules of engagement. We have to ask police for permission before we protest about police brutality. Rahila raised so many questions and said so much and closed by asking if women can ever get really comfortable in public space.
Virginia Heath (Film maker and cross-platform producer)
Virginia’s address was really inspiring as she said that there were far more women in film today than when she had started out. She described how there had been no film courses in New Zealand and how she had landed up coming through to London to study film. Jane Campion was the first woman ever to win the prestigious Palme D'Or at Cannes award for her 1993 film The Piano and Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar in 2010 for her film The Hurt Locker. Women have made lots of achievements but we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go. Virginia talked about her new project My Dangerous Loverboy. This is a cross platform film project to raise awareness of sex trafficking and I will post more about it later this week.
Virginia told us that she began studying film during the miners’ strikes in 1985 and she filmed a documentary about the event of the strikes on the miners’ wives. She mentioned that if there are interesting things happening when you’re studying, it really makes an impact. I can really relate to that as I was at university when Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa.