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Debate: Feminism

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Is feminism still relevant?


Background and Context of Debate:

Feminism is relatively difficult to define, both because of the breadth of the movement, which includes a wide diversity of views and some vigorous internal debate, and because it is so frequently caricatured by its opponents. A fair description might be that it is a movement committed to the pursuit of equality, notably but not exclusively sexual equality, based on an analysis of inequality which roots it in the social transformation of sex (the real, biological differences between men and women) into gender (the various ways in which men and women are perceived as having different abilities and social roles), and the ways in which gender is implicated in unequal power relationships between men and women in many areas of life. The pursuit of equality is central to feminism; to put it another way, one can be anti-racist without being feminist, but one cannot be feminist without being anti-racist. Both the forms of ‘equality’ which feminists have pursued and the analysis of ‘inequality’ which it offers have come in for sustained criticism.

Mission accomplished? Has feminism achieved its mission?


Feminism has no more battles left to fight. Victories such as gaining the vote, the right to an abortion and the right to equal pay were important and worth winning. But given that sexual equality is now - rightly - enshrined and protected in law, there is nothing left for the feminist movement to do in most western countries, although of course it may still be useful in parts of the world where women still lack basic democratic and other rights.


Feminism has plenty more to achieve. In the UK, on average women earn 82% of men’s hourly wage; female graduates earn 19% less than their male counterparts; female pensioners live on 53% of the income of male pensioners.[citation needed] Also in the UK, one in four women suffers domestic violence, and an increase in the reporting of rape in the last thirty years has gone alongside a threefold drop in conviction rates. Worldwide, women do two-thirds of all work, earn one-tenth of all income and own one-hundredth of all property. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. 300 million women have no access to contraception. More than 80% of the world’s 50 million refugees and displaced people are women and children. Every year, 2 million girls under 16 are coerced, abducted or trafficked into the sex industry. These are all real problems, on which feminists continue to campaign - as they should.[citations needed]

"Natural" inequality? Is there a natural inequality between the sexes? Does feminism falsely prescribe that the two sexes should be equal, and is this element of its mission a dead end?


Feminism promotes an unnatural equality between the sexes. There is nothing wrong with sex-role differentiation. Men and women are biologically different, and these differences are what have led to women’s dominance of the private sphere, home life and childrearing, and men’s dominance of public life, the workplace and political authority. All of these are essential to a functional society, and the division of labour on the basis of sex is an entirely sensible principle of social order. There is a distinction between enshrining equality of pay, democratic representation and opportunity in law, and actively encouraging women to reject their traditional, and in many cases preferred, gender roles. Women are, in general, more fulfilled by motherhood than by career success.


Aside from physical differences, there are few basic roles in modern societies that can't be performed by both sexes on an equal basis: Women have shown that they are just as capable as men of playing a central role in public life; men have shown that they are just as capable as women of looking after the house and bringing up children. Given this, the suggestion that the male/female public/private divide is biological, natural and right looks somewhat suspect. Feminists point out that the roles traditionally accorded to men are those which - by virtue of being public - involve the widest exercise of political power and influence, and argue that claiming that this is natural and inevitable is an effective way of naturalising male power over women. Claims that motherhood is more fulfilling for women than career success operate as criticisms of women who choose not to have children, and are therefore self-fulfilling prophecies; they tell us nothing about what women are really best at.

Negative impact? Has the effect of Feminist campaigns been negative in society?


Many feminist campaigns, on issues such as positive discrimination in employment, actually damage the women they claim to help: Feminists should recognise that in many professions the unequal representation of women reflects the fact that relatively few women want to work there in the first place, rather than the fact that women are discriminated against by employers. If employers feel pressured to accept women over better-qualified men this can cause resentment both among male competitors and among women who do not want to feel they have an unfair advantage. Campaigning for women in particular undermines the principle that women can compete on equal terms with men.


Campaigns on behalf of women in particular reflect the feminist contention that women have been unfairly discriminated against for years, and this is likely to continue without positive action: There are various reasons why many more men than women choose certain professions, one of which is that male-dominated professions can be unpleasant ones for women to work in irrespective of their ability, a problem which is likely to be self-perpetuating without intervention. Men who resent losing out to women (given the way employment law works, they are likely to be equally well qualified rather than better-qualified women) should reflect on the fact that women have been losing out to men for years.

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