International Women's Day, 8 March - Standing in the way of control

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Feminism is alive and kicking, with a new generation at the helm. But more young women need to get involved, argues Kristin Aune

When they hear the word "feminism", few people seem to think of young women. They tend to see images from the past: suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of King George V's horse or women wearing dungarees and not shaving their legs.

And that is the way the movement still appears to be taught in schools. When Catherine Redfern and I surveyed nearly 1,300 contemporary feminists for our book on the resurgence of feminism, Reclaiming the F Word, they told us it had been taught to them as something historical. Hearing about the suffragettes was inspiring, they said, but it didn't give them much sense of connection to feminism today.

Yet the theme of this year's International Women's Day is "Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures" - and it's an important one. Girls are, after all, the future, and they have the power to inspire others and change things for the better. Feminism needs to be seen as a current movement and one in which young women are pivotal. How can we engage young people with feminism in the 21st-century classroom? How has the movement changed? And where is it headed?

Feminism is usually seen in three movements, or "waves". The first began in the 19th century: women aged 30 or over won the vote in 1918 and 10 years later women could vote from the age of 21. But earlier influential figures whose writings challenged the status quo include Aphra Behn (1640- 1689) and Mary Astell (1666-1731), who famously asked, "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?" Then there were Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who believed that expanding education to women was key to their freedom - and they were right.

So-called second-wave feminism began in the late 1960s and continued throughout the 1970s, focusing on issues such as equality in pay and education, contraception and abortion, childcare, legal independence, violence against women and the need for sexual freedom. Victories included the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.

For today's feminists, sometimes called the third wave, the focus has shifted. In many ways it is harder now, because some would argue that equality has already been achieved, that the battle has been won. Girls outperform boys at GCSE and A level, and a quarter of women in the workforce now earn more than their partners.

But half of the FTSE 250 companies have no women on their boards and only one in four MPs in Britain is female. More women are working, but their median hourly earnings are 80 per cent of men's. There is concern about the under- representation of older women on television, an issue now being explored by MPs and the BBC. Rape within marriage was only made illegal as recently as 1991 and there remains a gaping chasm between legal equality and individuals' behaviour and attitudes. Sacking a woman because she gets pregnant may be illegal, but it still happens.

"Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher appeared to smash the political glass ceiling when she became Britain's first female prime minister in 1979, but did this really change much for everyday women in Britain?

In some ways, women today face more pressure than ever: they pay a hefty price to keep up with ever-rising standards of female "beauty". Rates of cosmetic surgery rose by 6 per cent last year, with women undergoing 90 per cent of all procedures. Breast implants are the most popular procedure, with 10,000 women having them annually. Women seem to believe that they will improve their self-image, confidence and boost not only their bra size but also their work opportunities if they increase their natural assets.

But what sort of society sees this as normal? Would men tolerate being judged on their appearance in the same way? Would Margaret Thatcher have considered breast implants if she had been told it would improve her chances of election? We will never know.

There is something very wrong with our hypocritical society and its attitude to women. On the one hand, it applauds models such as Jordan (real name Katie Price), who has made a career out of her looks and a seemingly relentless series of plastic surgery procedures. On the other hand, when these procedures go wrong, as in the case of the French PIP breast implants scandal, it effectively abandons women and argues that they should foot the bill for removing and substituting a faulty product.

Feminists today, confronted with a culture of de jure equality and de facto inequality, have a fight on their hands. As 23-year-old Lynne, a feminist we interviewed for our research, said: "I think it was more of political battle in the 70s. I think there were fewer equality laws then and I think people were fighting for feminism on paper, and I think now it's mainly about changing people's ideas and the way people think. In this country at least, laws are in place that women are equal to men. Now we've just got to get people believing it."

Younger feminists are fighting in many creative ways. Last year, SlutWalks were staged globally - from Toronto to Singapore to Sao Paulo - in protest against women being blamed for being sexually attacked because of how they were dressed. But the tactic was criticised as much as it was applauded.

Many other forums offer young women a voice. Young Feminist Wire, an initiative from the Association for Women's Rights in Development, is a hub that recommends groups in which many young women are playing a part. Femen, an organisation fighting for the well-being of women in Ukraine, has protested against sex tourism and international marriage agencies. Wave India promotes semi-urban young women's engagement in citizen journalism through video blogs. The Feminist Poster Project, run by a Belgian feminist, archives and shares feminist posters from around the world. And Kolena Laila, an annual Egyptian blogging initiative, is a valuable way for young women to speak of the oppression experienced by women in the Arab region.

In London this month, the Go Feminist conference attracted nearly 400 people, many of them young women. Young women, and some young men too, are not only embracing feminism but also reclaiming it for themselves.

This International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate and encourage girls' involvement in feminism, in and out of the classroom. Feminism is not a dirty word and, although it is a diverse movement, it has one laudable goal: a better world for women and girls, which is a better world for everyone.

Kristin Aune is the co-author with Catherine Redfern of Reclaiming the F Word: the new feminist movement (pound;12.99, Zed Books). She is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Derby


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What else?

Learn more about International Women's Day events, resources and this year's theme at

Key stage 1: celebrated nurses

QCDA_Resources has shared a lesson plan on Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, two pioneering pre-suffragette women.

Key stage 2: Queen Victoria

As we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, iffatsardharwalla investigates the life of the longest reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria, in a timeline resource.

Key stage 3: the Iron Lady

Was Margaret Thatcher successful as British prime minister? Hold a vote using lotrrulzu's lesson.

Key stage 4: votes for women

How much do your pupils know about the suffragettes? Find out with a quiz from EwanCruz.

Key stage 5: mere machines

Explore Margaret Atwood's vision of a dystopian world in which women are breeding machines with TES English's A Handmaid's Tale activity.

In the forums

In the TES music forum, teachers are discussing celebrating International Women's Day with displays about women in music. Who do you think should be up there?

Find all links and resources at


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