One of the more sobering developments that we at Mediolana have come across in recent times is the revelations of the Everyday Sexism Project, an Internet initiative headed by the British writer Laura Bates. Bates, an alumnus of the University of Cambridge, where she read English Literature, had the simple idea of setting up an online portal where people – in practice mostly young women – could send in their experiences of sexual discrimination; a little over two years after it went live, everydaysexism.com has garnered over 50,000 submissions.
The content of many of these submissions is truly horrifying, and paints a picture of a contemporary culture positively dripping with violence and genuine contempt for women purely on account of their gender; while some of the contributions may not be representative of everyday existence, there are simply too many qualitatively profoundly troubling ones to dismiss this project as sensationalist.
But why is this happening? Sexism was meant to be a problem which had been ‘solved’ in various successive ‘waves’, notably those in the first and third quarters of the twentieth century; now, even basic human rights which previous generations of women would have taken for granted, including the right not to be assaulted, are seemingly not universally viewed as such – and somewhat ironically, in supposedly sophisticated and progressive countries such as the United Kingdom.
Without wishing to pretend to be able to proffer an instant solution to a problem that must concern us all, after some contemplation we at Mediolana believe that addressing the following points would go some way towards resolving certain structural issues within both the contemporary feminist movement and wider society:
1. Back to the Future. Feminism’s golden age saw concrete, big-ticket gains for women, notably in the economic sphere: the right to inherit and own property was something that was broadly denied to most women in the West until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Feminist writers during both this and earlier periods were able to convince large swathes of men through the moral strength of their case; reading what is arguably the greatest feminist tract in the history of Western thought, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), it is impossible not to admire the intellectual brilliance, eclecticism and ethical clarity of her vision – qualities sorely lacking in most contemporary feminist works.
2. Confusion. Contemporary feminism as a body of thought appears to suffer from basic problems of orientation which render it much less convincing. For example, on the issue of pornography the movement cannot seem to decide whether porn is dehumanising or liberating – despite apparently overwhelming, consistent and interculturally-valid evidence for the former position. When the waters are being muddied on a topic as basic as this, it becomes that more difficult to take the ideology as a whole with the seriousness it should deserve.
3. Complacency? The parameters of the debate surrounding the presence of topless models on prominent pages of European tabloid newspapers such as The Sun and Bild seem touchingly naive given the ubiquity of Internet pornography. This continued focus on material which, although perhaps problematic, is practically-speaking predominantly of symbolic value, arguably illustrates the complacency of contemporary feminism – or perhaps this escape into a pre-digital world represents nothing more than the fear that dealing with this issue is now almost impossible.