Reclaiming the F Word:
Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
This is a new edition of the 2010 Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, which I reviewed – largely positively, albeit with reservations – in Gender & Development (18:3, pp. 560–2). The bold new cover design alludes to the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), or suffragettes – purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope. And the reference in the sub-title to ‘the’ feminist movement has been dropped. But since the only new content is the authors’ 23-page preface, I focus on that rather than re-hash my review of the whole book. Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune reprise their original ‘core argument – that there are serious gender inequalities in the world today and feminists are acting to challenge them’ (p. xiii).
Writing in the midst of the global recession and the austerity policies imposed on the weaker Eurozone countries (but gleefully adopted by the British government), the authors argue that the ‘financial crisis is gendered. Its causes and impacts, and governments’ subsequent policy decisions, are gendered’ (p. xvii). Bailing out the banks, whose spectacularly overpaid bosses were either incompetent or complicit in the crisis (or both), has mostly benefited ‘a small group of rich white men’ (p. xiii). Women are bearing much of the fall-out in this Northern version of neo-liberal structural adjustment that was for two decades inflicted on the South, with enduring consequences.
The authors applaud the rehabilitation of feminism, although acquiring a more acceptable public face may yet prove to be a Faustian pact. Feminism is popularly understood as a ‘lifestyle’ issue, a ‘personal choice’ about whether you can plaster yourself with make-up and be a slave to fashion, be a full-time or a ‘have it all’ working mother with a high-powered job and a live-in nanny, be opposed to or supportive of same-sex marriage. Feminism is thus reduced to ‘an identity label, requiring no further action’ (p. xv). It is doubtful, however, that such self-absorbed concerns resonate much for women in low-paid, precarious jobs who are struggling to bring up their children, and for whom being a so-called ‘stay-at-home mum’ is less likely to be about seeking a work–life balance than about lack of affordable child care.
The sexualisation of everyday life has also brought with it questions about whether ‘to go along with this by insisting that feminists are “sexy” too’, or ‘challenge the pressures on women to see their worth primarily in their sexiness?’ (p. xv). While I wouldn’t argue for a return to the assertively ‘unsexy’ baggy-dungaree feminism of my youth, it still saddens me that women feel the need to conform to a stereotype of beauty or ‘sexiness’. Yet women, young and old, account for 90 per cent of all cosmetic surgery performed in the UK – not to mention Botox injections and the tons of over-the-counter slimming and anti-ageing pills, lotions, and potions aimed at making women more ‘feminine’. ‘Sexiness’ is big business.
The authors make and underline some useful insights, for instance citing the feminist economist Randy Albelda that ‘any apparent gender convergence in the American economy is less about female gain and more about “many of the precarious aspects of women’s economic situation increasingly spreading to men”’ (p. xix). They point to a wider understanding ‘that oppressions and inequalities intersect’(p. xxx), particularly in relation to ethnicity, disability, and sexual and gender identities. They refer to ‘the connections between religion, politics and patriarchy’ (p. xxiv) shown in the harsh sentences handed down to members of Pussy Riot – as they have been to other prominent critics of Putin – and also to those for whom gender equality is part and parcel of their religious beliefs. For instance, in the UK Muslim women referred to ‘women’s rights’ (rather than feminism) as being ‘integral to Islam, properly understood’ (p. xxxvi).
In their desire to show that ‘the powers of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, classism and homophobia’(p. xxxv) are still alive and kicking, the authors tend to skimp on important details. For example, under the heading ‘Feminism and left-wing politics’, they jump in three sentences from ‘the gang rape of a student on a New Delhi bus’to ‘allegations of sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund’ to ‘revelations about the UK celebrity Jimmy Savile, described as “a prolific, predatory sex offender”’(p. xxi). Yes, there is a woeful failure to deal with sexual abuse and gender-based violence. But, leaving aside how these examples are thought to illustrate feminism and left-wing politics (other than that Strauss-Kahn, or DSK, was slated to become the Socialist president of France!), I am troubled by seamlessly linking them. The Indian physiotherapy student suffered unspeakable brutality. Her male partner, who sought to defend her, was gagged and beaten unconscious with an iron rod. Their naked and mutilated bodies were chucked out of the bus following an act of random violence that might have been inflicted on any child, woman, or man.
Turning to DSK and the Sofitel affair. He claimed that a sexual encounter with a hotel maid was consensual while she alleged violent sexual assault. Hundreds of women around the world immediately rallied in support of the ‘victim’to express their outrage that the rich and powerful DSK would probably ‘get away with it’ because he could afford a top law firm. It was, however, the New York prosecutors who filed a 25-page motion to drop the charges because the ‘nature and number of the complainant’s falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter between the complainant and the defendant’ (Trotta and Katz 2011; following the withdrawal of criminal charges, the complainant, Nafissatou Diallo, brought a civil action, which was settled on undisclosed terms). And then the late Jimmy Savile, known to have abused almost 1,500 children, adolescents, and vulnerable adults of both sexes over 60 years – his victims locked in silence for decades because nobody would have believed their word against his. Each of these three cases, in my view, tells an important but quite different story about sexual violence.
Readers of this journal would broadly agree that failing to address sexual violence is ‘symptomatic of a wider societal failure to challenge sexism and to create leadership structures that are truly democratic and gender-inclusive’ (p. xxiii). There might be less unanimity about two examples used to illustrate this. One concerns the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose shambolic internal enquiry exonerated ‘a prominent committee member’accused of rape. For me, what stands out is not that the inner circle defended a senior SWP cadre against the indefensible – and they were never going to turn him over to the police – but that over 100 members left the SWP in protest (Seymour 2013). The other example is that of‘prominent men’s support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over the alleged rape of two women in Sweden and his refusal to be extradited for trial’(p. xxii). That the British MP George Galloway made an oafish comment is barely newsworthy, although it’s strange to quote Naomi Wolf among the ‘prominent men’. But this is background noise. Of more concern is the authors’ inaccurate description of Assange’s situation. He is not refusing ‘to be extradited for trial’. He is wanted for a second round of questioning, not ‘for trial’, since he has not been formally charged with any offence. Having reviewed the complaints lodged in August 2010, the Chief Public Prosecutor ruled that there was no reason to suspect Assange of rape, but that there may have been sexual molestation, about which the Swedish police questioned him (Davis 2010). His condition for returning for questioning is Sweden’s diplomatic guarantee that it will not extradite him to the USA. Over the three years that this has dragged on, Sweden has provided no such guarantee nor has it accepted Ecuador’s offer to allow Assange to be interviewed by video link or in person at its London embassy (Agence France Presse 2012). Since the United Nations ruled that Sweden violated the global ban on torture by being involved in the CIA transfer to Egypt of an asylum seeker (Human Rights Watch 2006), if all the Swedish authorities want to do is to question Assange, its reluctance to pursue any feasible alternatives to extradition is not encouraging.
The new preface offers a rapid update on what is basically a reprint of the 2010 book. It was not the place to introduce substantive issues, or to explore these in any great depth – which makes it all the more important to get the thumbnail sketches right. It is a shame the authors didn’t always do so.
Agence France Presse (2012) ‘WikiLeaks founder wants guarantee he won’t be sent to US’, www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5juNu7AD08LPbrqXibOf5VLiZ_5GA/ (24 June) (last checked by the author October 2013)
Davis, Nick (2010) ‘10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange’, Guardian, www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/17/julian-assange-sweden/ (17 December) (last checked by the author October 2013)
Review ©2013 Deborah Eade, Writer and Editor, France
Reclaiming the F Word: Feminism Today is published by Zed Books
Review originally published in Gender & Development 21.3 (2013)