As International Women’s Day (‘IWD’) is celebrated around the world today for the 100th time, it seems an appropriate juncture to examine the present position of feminism, a once-influential social movement which is increasingly viewed with some disdain; as the Oslo-born arts personality Mariella Frostrup notes in her largely excellent recent article on IWD, Feminism’s global challenge: With one voice, in today’s United Kingdom very few people publicly define themselves as feminists.
Perhaps there are good reasons for this. While almost no one would argue with the aims of so-called ‘first wave’ feminism, whose advocates – notably in the first quarter of the twentieth century - sought to gain fundamental political, social and economic rights for women, the second and third waves of the 1960s and 1990s respectively arguably possessed far less intellectual potency; too often, feminist ideology was conflictual, ethnocentric and detached from the everyday concerns of those it claimed to represent.
In order for feminism to have continued relevance in the future, it is clear that it needs to redefine itself; however, it is important to recognise that while feminism as presently understood may not be the optimal means by which to solve the problems of women, these issues are all too real and need to be addressed for the sake of society as a whole as well as for those directly affected. The feminist movement could substantially reinvigorate itself at least in part by engaging with the following subjects:
1. Gendercide. As the Economist reported in 2010, in China and northern India there are around 120 male newborns to every 100 corresponding females: owing to a variety of social and cultural factors – including the modern trend towards smaller families and the low value given to female children in societies where the dowry system and the One Child Policy are respectively dominant – the abortion of unborn girls is being carried out on an unfathomable scale. Nobel laureate and author of Development as Freedom Amartya Sen estimated back in 1990 that the number of ‘missing’ girls was 100m. And this problem is not limited to India and China: this is also a trend in Taiwan and Singapore. It is difficult to imagine a problem of greater urgency than this.
2. Advertising. Women – perhaps even more so than men – are subject to a daily barrage of advertisements featuring digitally-manipulated images of impossibly thin, voluptuous females, and there is a wealth of literature illustrating that such images are psychologically damaging, particularly with reference to the self-image of young girls. Those concerned about this issue could do worse than lobby their municipalities to follow the example of São Paulo: in 2006, the Brazilian metropolis famous for its gridlocked expressways and staccato skyscrapers entirely banned outdoor advertising under the direction of mayor Gilberto Kassab. Visually, São Paulo – which used to resemble a website – is now one of the ‘cleanest’ cities in the world, with depictions of improbably insubstantial women banished from the landscape.
3. Work. As the origins of IWD hint at, feminism has long been associated with socialism; as such, it has traditionally regarded capitalism with sometimes barely disguised antipathy. However, perhaps this scorn is misplaced: entrepreneurship promises to liberate women not only from the virtually universal problem of receiving lower wages for producing the same output as men, but also the emotional and physical exhaustion associated with the rarely-attained combination of salaried employment and a rich, meaningful family life.
4. De-eroticisation. In many parts of the world, sex is effectively being replaced or diluted by virtual sex or pornography. This is a cause for concern for women in particular, since much material masquerading as erotic in fact depicts violence or degrading acts being inflicted on women, and is therefore distorting people’s expectations of sex and its context. That this is a subject of some sensitivity makes its addressing no less desirable.
5. Spirituality. Mainstream feminist theory has barely considered the topic of spirituality, yet in a great many cultures around the world women find tremendous psychological solace and societal status in religion and religious structures. Given that unipolar depression – predicted to be the number two global disability by 2020 – is twice as common in women than in men, there is every incentive for further exploration of the role spirituality can play in ameliorating this trend.