As a new wave of feminism is sweeping the globe, Emily Prichard reports on the impact it’s having on outdated values
It’s just another Saturday night in London’s Leicester Square and the usual hordes of tourists, hen parties and early-bird clubbers are milling around.
With an eruption of drums and a sudden burst of song, the Reclaim the Night march swells up Charing Cross Road and flows past the astonished throngs. As the procession streams through the West End, a coach party of elderly female passengers stare out through the glass at the women outside. Reading the placards clasped tightly in every fist, which call for an end to violence against women, the women rise from their seats to wave, beaming as row upon row of protesters stream past into the night.
For anybody who witnessed these stirring scenes on a blustery night last November, there is little doubt that feminism is back.
In the UK one contributing factor could be that women are set to be hardest hit by the austerity package proposed by the coalition government. According to a study by general trade union GMB Union, not only are they set to bear the brunt of public sector cuts and wage freezes, but as primary users of public services such as Sure Start children’s centres, women also face being hit hardest by reduced local authority funding.
However, while women’s position in society may be threatened, resistance is rapidly growing. Women’s blocs are being mobilised at anti-cuts demonstrations and five female protesters notably chained themselves to the entrance of Downing Street to block the delivery of chancellor George Osborne’s budget.
Often incorrectly labelled as man-haters or lesbians, feminists and their movement were believed by many to be a relic of the 1960s. Here and now in 2012, this assertion is clearly untrue. Reports by campaign group UK Feminista reveal that the number of feminist groups has doubled in the last two years and events such as Reclaim the Night are experiencing a surge in attendance, with over 1,000 women taking to the streets to have their voices heard.
“It’s a really exciting time. We are seeing a real resurgence in feminist activism that is moving from the margins to the mainstream,” said Kat Banyard, co-founder of UK Feminista, in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year. “People are willing to put up their hand and say they are a feminist without the fear of being ridiculed. Particularly in the past 12 months, we are seeing people standing up and being willing to be counted.”
The current rise of feminist activism owes much to UK Feminista, a group dedicated to providing training and support for those in the fight for gender equality. In the two years since it was founded, the group has offered practical workshops in fighting gender inequality at its summer school and has spearheaded several high profile campaigns. In 2011, the group drew international media attention with a 200-strong protest of women and men at the opening of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy London nightclub.
It’s a movement with an increasingly broad spectrum of supporters that span genders and generations
It’s a movement with an increasingly broad spectrum of supporters that span genders and generations. Several groups have formed in schools, including Camden School for Girls, where a dedicated group of 15 teenagers are campaigning to get lads mags featuring scantily clad women out of sight on shop shelves. The Anti Porn Men Project has also been established in recent times, which shows how men are becoming increasingly involved in the fight for gender equality.
The rise of feminist activism has also seen women’s rights campaigners working in conjunction with other social justice movements. Operating in solidarity with human rights groups People & Planet and War on Want, UK Feminista launched a high profile campaign against brands with a shameful track record of sweatshop abuse. Previous protests have successfully resulted in Nike offering $1.8 million in compensation to its factory workers.
The influence of feminism’s recent revival can be witnessed not just in the UK, but on an international scale. During the Arab spring, women were pictured on the frontline of protests in Tahrir Square, rebelling against the deeply unjust societies they inhabit. In Russia, feminist punk band Pussy Riot have become figureheads of feminism, following their performance of anti-government protest songs in Moscow’s Red Square and its most important church, drawing attention to the issue of free speech.
While the fight against gender inequality promises to be long and challenging, the seeds of change are being sown all across the world. In the upcoming months, UK Feminista says it plans to launch its biggest campaign to date. It aims to reclaim feminism as an empowering force for social change by further raising awareness about the continuing need for gender equality in society. UK Feminista’s Kat Banyard says: “Feminism has returned to the streets, and that’s where it belongs. It takes ordinary women and men to stand up and be counted, and take action for the world they want to live in.”