Feminism is a toxic word and us feminists should remember that.
More than 100 years ago suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst began a UK tour to discover how working women were really being treated. Emma Barnett recreates her fascinating journey and is reminded of an important truth.
In the summer of 1907, Sylvia Pankhurst, the determined daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline, began a tour of northern England and Scotland to document the lives of female workers.
Her ambitious trip took her to potteries, fisheries, chain makers, pit brows and farms. Frustrated with her mother and elder sister’s bourgeois focus, Sylvia wanted to find out how the working women of Britain were being treated alongside male labourers. The answer? Terribly. As her drawings and notes attest, conditions for most workers back then were appalling regardless of gender, but for women things were particularly bad.
Writing about the “pit-brow lassies” of Wigan, she noted: “In spite of their great strength and the arduous labours they perform, they are, like most other women workers, very poorly paid … A bankswoman earns from 1s 10d to 2s 4d; whilst a banksman, doing exactly the same work gets from 4s 9d to 5s a day. It is this question of underpayment that is at the root of most of the hardship and suffering.”
Far from the beautiful Palace of Westminster and her Conservative mother’s battle for the vote, the Socialist Sylvia Pankhurst discovered a far rawer face of inequality, as she lived among these communities for weeks on end.
Over the last few months I have been retracing her steps for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, in a bid to monitor modern female workers’ conditions and discover if the so-called fourth wave of feminism has reached the factory floor.
Of course we had to make some tweaks; industry has changed dramatically over the last century. For instance the majority of caring used to be done in the home, albeit by women, but now much of it is outsourced – so we visited a lovely care home where the majority of the staff were female. Instead of visiting chainmakers, we spoke to supermarket workers – a labour army that simply didn’t exist in Sylvia’s day. But we tried to be as true as we could – visiting women planting lettuces on a farm in Preston and working in a pottery factory in Stoke – where the series begins today.
Unsurprisingly, life for both women and men has dramatically improved across the board. Back breaking work on farms has been aided by planting machines. No one, including pregnant women (as was the case in 1907) is forced to inhale lead and risk poisoning in potteries. Much derided “health and safety” provisions have meant workers are permitted breaks from their stations – something which would have been scoffed at 100 years ago, when a rest for lunch was frowned upon.
In terms of men and women, things have also progressed. Hard-earned equal pay legislation has levelled the playing field lower down the chain. Women no longer have to bring their children into dangerous workshops and legally they aren’t allowed to be denied higher paying roles.
And yet, most women I interviewed said they still didn’t feel like they were treated equally to men. Beyond most of them working a double shift – ie doing all of the cooking, cleaning and caring at home, exactly as they were in Sylvia’s day, they just didn’t feel their voices were heard or valued as much as their male colleagues (by mostly male managers).
So, I ventured, did they consider themselves feminists? “No, don’t be daft,” they roared at me, looking totally and utterly appalled. “We just want to be properly equal to the men.” I didn’t bother countering that their caveat perfectly summarised my definition of feminism.
I am proud to be a feminist and always have been. But it’s a toxic label and sadly remains so to this day. In certain circles, it’s worse than publicly admitting you are a Tory.
Many have tried to rebrand both the Conservative Party and feminism (although not together – that really would be disastrous) – but with the latter I feel it’s increasingly a waste of time.
Amazing women like Michelle Obama don’t need to drop the f-bomb when they turn up and explode the minds of East London schoolgirls with rousing speeches about the power of education. The First Lady’s visit to Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets earlier this week was a curtain raiser for a new joint US-UK initiative: a $180m (£115m) pledge to help girls affected by violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo return to school. Feminist or not – she’s pushing for change.
Increasingly even self-professed feminists are waking up to the unfortunate toxicity of the label. The UK has a very new political party: the Women’s Equality Party – of which I am an early member. Co-founded by writer Catherine Mayer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, it ain’t called the Feminist Party precisely because it seeks to include, rather than exclude, and help all women and men finally achieve equality, together. To borrow the suffragettes’ wise motto we need more deeds, not words or labels, to conquer the final but tricky remaining hurdles to equality.
Source: The Telegraph