I went to FEM 08 on Saturday, a free one-day national feminist conference held at SheffUni. The big draw was Germaine Greer, who gave a speech in the afternoon, but there were also speakers from The Guardian, The F-Word, Oxfam and several other organisations.
It was an interesting day. Despite being billed as ‘a conference for women and men’, the attendees were about 98% female. I guess this is no suprise. However, I don’t know if this is a good thing. There were several people, including Greer, who said we as women need to mobilise ourselves, get active etc and whilst I think that is a good thing, I also think the fight for equality needs to be fought by men as well as women. I know lots of men who believe in many of the principles people at these conferences were fighting for, but very few who are likely to get involved: partly due to apathy, partly because things under the banner of feminist are seen as women’s issues.
The key issues of the day were things that I found immensely challenging in part and depressing in part. These things included gender inequality in the workplace, particularly for parents (and see Fiona’s blog for how depressing that whole area is), medical treatment of women, women’s rights in the developing world, prostitution, pornography, lap dancing clubs and rape convictions.
Points were made that although the feminists of earlier decades had won several battles, there were so many left to win and in some places retrograde steps (e.g. the increasing pinkness of merchandise aimed at young girls). Greer suggested that maybe this was partly because as women, we just take so much, we are sacrificial people and we don’t fight or get angry enough.
There are so many things that need adjusting (obviously the same can be said for rights for other people groups too) that it can feel so dispiriting and underwhelming to know where to start. I also learned some shocking facts: I knew the rape conviction rate was low, but I didn’t realise how low. It’s almost impossible for a man to be convicted of raping a woman because such a ridiculous amount of evidence is needed (and of course, if he gets set free, the mysoginists at the Daily Mail and their ilk can then launch a very sexist, vicious attack on the woman). It is easier to be convicted of raping a man, because the requirements for evidence are so much less. How is that fair?
I also learned that lapdancing clubs only require the same kind of licensing as pubs and coffee shops. A former lapdancer shared her experiences: it wasn’t empowering or high-paid, it was very low-paid, they were often in debt to the clubs, who make them buy shoes and outfits, there are lots of them competing for tips, so those who go further, get closer and so on may get more money. Object are campaigning to have these places relicensed with similar classification to sex shops so that councils can have more say. You can read more about their campaign here.
Oh, and then there’s the whole issue of women and objectification – the way that it is still deemed fine for magazines like Nuts and Zoo to parade half naked women all over the shelves of normal magazine shops, and for young men to feel the objectification of woman is OK. And, of course, there is the whole issue of Playboy making stationery, bedding and whatnot for young girls – do we really want them to grow up loving a brand that treats women as nothing at all?
And that’s before we get onto the Hooters scandal. If you’ve had your head in the sand for the last couple of months, Hooters is an American chain of fast-food restaurants and ‘sports bars’ that places its waitresses in skimpy outfits, makes them sign contracts that agree to them being objectified and potentially sexually harrassed and its name and slogans reference the waitresses, erm, assets. Hooters are coming to the UK. They have a branch in Nottingham, they are planning to open up to fifty more in the next four or five years, including one in Sheffield, possibly in Leopold Square, of all places. There are lots of people campaigning against this, including a Facebook group for people in Sheffield, one for people in the UK, and a bunch of iPetitions. Lots of naysayers have sprung up saying ‘it’s just a sports bar’ and that the campaigners should get over themselves. But how can we just say that it’s OK and a bit of ‘harmless fun’ to support a chain that promotes itself on women’s figures, that makes them agree to clauses saying they are objects – particularly when children are encouraged to dine there. If you want to launch a chain of US restaurants, fine. But why do you need to exploit women for it? There is no need for women to be sex objects to anyone but their partners, particularly in a so-called restaurant/bar. End of.
The conference had that feeling I used to get at Christian conferences – the ‘I want to make a change’ feeling. I swear, Delirious? History Maker song would fit just as well in that environment as in the Christian one – it’s exactly the same feeling. I don’t know what I can do to make the differences I feel are needed: not just in terms of gender equality, in terms of racial, religious, sexual orientation, disability equality. The world is so bloody depressing at times. I think about these things all the time, being a Cultural Studies lecturer, and being a sort-of Christian. I’m not totally sure what I can do, how much change any of us as individuals can make (although together we can do a LOT), but I don’t want to get sucked in to apathy.
Right now, I guess the best I can do is challenge my students on their own views and attitudes, challenge them to look at the world more closely, and do the odd other little bit where I can, to write my doctorate and hope in some way it will contribute to discourses around religion, culture and society. But when I get that doctorate in the next decade, then I maybe need to think a little harder about where my research, writing and energies can be directed to support, serve and challenge others.
It sort of brings me back to the things I had in mind when I started working for the church. I guess passion and vocation go beyond circumstances…