The Women's Assembly is a crucial step in putting women at the centre of fighting against austerity, argues Elly Badcock
It's entirely unarguable that in the last few years, swathes of young women have proudly claimed the word 'feminist' for themselves. With readership of feminist-leaning blogs like Jezebel and The F Word climbing daily, attendance at feminist summer schools soaring, and brave women students taking stands against sexism at schools and colleges across Britain, you'd be a fool not to notice it.
At the same time, steadily and surely, the movement against the government's vicious and brutal austerity programme grows. Over 4,000 delegates launched the People's Assembly last June, with a recall conference scheduled next month. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched against austerity, in London and Manchester. The RMT union went on a 48-hour tube strike with two-thirds of the public behind them, and there have been a series of strikes in higher education over the past several months.
These are incredibly positive developments that should put a spring in the step of anyone fighting injustice and oppression. They both signify a lack of willingness to abide by the status quo, and a desire to shape the world we inhabit to a greater degree than we currently do.
But - so far at least - it seems this nascent feminist movement has very little to say to the women bearing the brunt of austerity. A report by the Women’s Budget Group says single mothers will lose 15.6% of their income by 2015, and women pensioners will lose 12.5% (compared with 9.5% for male pensioners).
Add to this the fact that wages have stagnated so much that a joint income is now equal to a man’s salary forty years ago, meaning it’s no easier for women to leave abusive relationships without financial constraint.
Add to this, the fact that women are still twice as likely to earn less than a living wage.
And pour on top of this festering pile of institutional sexism the public sectors cuts (affecting women who disproportionately work in and use these services); the rising cost of nurseries and childcare that keep women either working dead-end jobs to make ends meet or stuck at home; a constant barrage of attacks that make it hard for many women to lift their heads, let alone put their necks on the line and fight back.
It’s difficult to reconcile this with the most recent and lauded victory for the new feminist movement. At the end of last year, the Bank of England agreed to display Jane Austen on the back of £10 notes from 2016 after a notable and public campaign by Caroline Criado-Perez. It would, of course, have been a travesty to have no women represented on the currency we all use daily. And the sexual harassment that Criado-Perez was subjected to for daring to both speak in public and be a woman deserves to be fought unrepentantly.
Nevertheless, it's hard to shake the feeling that the politics surrounding a long-dead middle-class woman aren't quite as immediate to most women as the politics surrounding the banknote she's printed on.
It's a feeling that permeates a number of the campaigns which make up the so-called 'fourth wave'; the campaigns to shut down lap dancing clubs rather than tackle the economic issues that drive women to work in them; campaigns for more women in the boardroom but not the fact that women make up a huge proportion of the lowest-paid jobs (paid equally to their male counterparts); campaigns against objectification without looking at the dollar-a-day workers producing Primark's 'maximise your assets' bra range.
None of this is to say that the campaigns the fourth wave has seized on are wrong, per se - or that they’re campaigns which should never have been fought. It’s easy to sneer from the sidelines, but let’s not forget that this campaign was fought by young women who heard the establishment say ‘women, you are not worthy’ and stuck their middle fingers up in response. The so-called fourth wave is made up of women who are sick to death of being told to lie down and take it, financially, sexually, and metaphorically. It’s a wake-up call, showing women that if they fight they can win.
But once its singular demands are granted, it leaves a layer of women who realise the world has changed very little. It leaves a realisation that the elevation of the few does little for the oppression of the many - and without a movement that can address the 'sticky floor' that keeps women in underpaid and undervalued work, a generation of activists will waste time fighting the glass ceiling.
That's why the People's Assembly calling a Women's Assembly Against Austerity on 22 February is such a crucial step. It's the vital chance we need to open up these discussions. We can create a new space to challenge austerity and channel the righteous anger of thousands of activists into something more than a mouthpiece for women at the top - women we have less in common with than the men who work and fight alongside us.
For women across the country, 22 February is an opportunity to shape the anti-austerity movement so it speaks louder to women, and could help us all scrub off that sticky floor once and for all.
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