Emma Ward works for an addiction charity and is co-director of Progressive Women
On Saturday May 11th I was privileged to be a part of the Progressive Women Spring Conference, ‘Making it Happen’. The event was designed to enable, inspire and support women to reach their full potential with a packed schedule of incredible and diverse female speakers and trainers. I was personally moved and inspired by both the speakers and the participants and I could write several blogs on a number of the themes, but I have decided to record the valuable lessons that I personally took from the day.
The thread that ran through all of the talks I heard was to begin by trying to understand who you are, what excites you and what you really want. Not what you think you should do, not what you think you could do, but what you really want to do, and then be brave enough to believe that you are capable and deserving of achieving your goal.
In the process of working towards and achieving your goals I learned that it is impossible to avoid:
- Asking for what you want
- Allowing yourself to be visible
- Allowing yourself to take risks and get out of your comfort zone
- Allowing yourself to be open to criticism and make mistakes
- Asking for help and support
- Challenging the messages you’ve been told by yourself and others about your limits
Dame Tessa Jowell shared that, in her experience, many women needed to be asked to lead and reassured that they could do it before they could take that leap. A few weeks ago, Caroline, a Progressive Women co-founder, asked our team for a volunteer to chair one of the sessions on the day. My head dropped down as I hoped that someone else would volunteer. I find public speaking and being the centre of attention very challenging and all the usual thoughts went through my head: ‘you’ll be rubbish’, ‘someone else would do a better job’, ‘if you do it you’ll ruin the whole event’. During the same time, I had been to an excellent workshop by writer Emily Benet and asked her to be a trainer and speaker at the event. She admitted her nerves but agreed to do it and I reassured her that I believed that she had something valuable to add. Like many people, I am perfectly comfortable encouraging others, but I struggle to do it for myself.
In hearing all the stories from the speakers, organsisers and participants I realised that nearly every woman, and probably man, however successful, at some point worries that they’re not good enough and that other people are more competent and therefore more deserving of success. In order for us to make that leap, we often need just one word of support from someone we trust. In the end, due to the encouragement of Progressive Women team, I agreed to chair one of the sessions, even though I was paralysed with fear in the days leading up to the event. On the day I even enjoyed being at the centre of things and had some really positive feedback from the audience on how I chaired the session. I left feeling incredibly proud and with a greater belief in my abilities. I passionately believe in inspiring and supporting women to have the courage to reach their full potential. I think that one of the most powerful ways I can do that is to be the change I want to see in the world and dare to believe in myself.
Progressive Women committee member, Binita Mehta, analyses the 2013 British elections.
Reflecting on last week’s local elections, I was pleased to see that many women stood and were elected into office, with a female MP replacing an outgoing male in the South Shields by-election.
Emma Lewell-Buck, the newest Member of Parliament, said in her victory speech: “It’s an honour to be elected as the first woman MP of South Shields. It’s humbling to follow in the footsteps of some great men but I can assure you this woman will walk her own way.” She is the first female Member of Parliament in South Tyneside since the 1940s and also tweeted about her pride in making history as a female in the role.
As a Progressive Women committee member who stood in the county council elections myself, I wanted to investigate how other women ‘made it happen’ in the 2013 elections.
Reena Ranger, a mother of two and head of Women Empowered stood in the local elections and spoke of her battle to balance life with her young children while running a campaign.
Reena said: “Like most things, it took organisation, time management and dedication and I enjoyed fulfilling my ambition, making me a more rounded person. I feel strongly about being a good role model for my children and I hope they noticed I was there for most of the school runs as well as the fun! Throughout my campaign I had a great support structure; my husband and both our parents are very supportive and pitched in a lot. Without them, I really would have struggled.”
Maxine Crawley, a former mayor of St Albans who was successful in her council re-election last week, had to ‘make it happen’ whilst her two teenage children were busy with A level and GCSE revision and her mother was in hospital.
Maxine said: “I am a typical middle-aged mum with ageing parents and stressed out kids, but am lucky to have a wonderful husband mopping everyone’s brow. My son has Aspergers, so I have a lot to juggle, but my support system is brilliant allowing me to have this absolutely wonderful career, which I love! I’ve changed through the years, giving more attention to my loved ones and ensuring I have allocated family time, without interruption.”
Personally, I found it a challenge to balance my full time career, family life, social life and relationship alongside running my own campaign. However, whilst on the campaign trail, meeting fellow Watford resident and Progressive Women’s ‘Make it Happen’ conference speaker Sally Overhead in her family home with her lovely husband and five delightful children, it reminded me that impressive progressive women are making it happen everywhere and any one of us can succeed in reaching our goals!
I hope you will be joining us at our sold-out conference on Saturday, however if you are unable to make it, do follow the event on twitter with #womenmakeithappen and on our blog next week.
Dame Tessa Jowell MP and other inspiring women leaders will be speaking at Progressive Women’s ‘Making it Happen’ Leadership conference on 11 May. More details here.
For all those who care about drive, determination and representation, the passing of Margaret Thatcher should be a moment of great personal significance, writes Progressive Women committee member, Binita Mehta.
Only a month old when Britain’s first female Prime Minister left Number 10 Downing Street for the last time, I have nevertheless been profoundly influenced by the Iron Lady’s Premiership. This is in no small part due to the example she set to women everywhere that I find myself with the same ambition and determination to enter into party politics by participating in making a real difference to change the face of British politics.
Her pioneering achievements ended the dusty orthodoxy of the Old Boys Club in Westminster, and lifted the barriers for people from all walks of life to follow suit. The grocer’s daughter who secured a scholarship to study at Oxford, balanced her scientific career as a Chemist, with Law School studies and in later life, Prime Ministerial duties with family life, proved that hard work, and hard work alone, is the key to achieving one’s potential.
President Obama said “she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered”. Geri Halliwell called her “the First Lady of girl power…who taught me anything is possible”.
We must not undervalue the impact she has made on representation in this country; she stepped into a man’s world which demanded she change, but bows out of a world that has changed in her wake. The Iron Lady defied expectations and paved the way for women to hold public posts, and it is easy to forget just how different the world would have been without the influence of Lady Thatcher.
I hope even those who despised the ideology that Lady Thatcher stood for can agree that here was a woman who demonstrated the courage, conviction and certitude to drive the changes she believed were right.
So here’s hoping her legacy lives on, as we ladies are not for turning either!
Join Dame Tessa Jowell MP and other inspiring women leaders at Progressive Women’s ‘Making it Happen’ Leadership conference on 11 May. Find out more and book your tickets here
Caroline Watson, Director of Progressive Women, writes on how Alice Walker has shaped her thinking of the limitations of western feminism.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to join the audience for the screening of the Alice Walker film at the Women of the World festival a few weeks ago. I have been a huge fan of Alice Walker’s books for many years, since I first read The Color Purple. I was really excited to know I was going to see a film about her life, and learn her personal story. So the icing on the cake was to discover that she was going to be present at the screening to discuss it afterwards.
Her novels have been completely inspiring to me, and shaped the way I have seen the world, influencing my attitudes towards religion, love and race - and in the flesh she lived up to all my expectations. Alice grew up on a farm as a child in Georgia, where her mother stood up to the white farmer boss and told him her daughter would go to school and not work on the farm, as was expected of black families on farms at that time. We learned of her experience falling in love with a white Jewish man and marrying him, not just out of love, ‘we could have lived in sin’, but because it was illegal: ‘no one was going to tell me who to love’. Walker was one of the leading black feminists in the civil rights movement, her family home was even targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.
Having read Walker’s novels, none of this surprised me. What was new to me was the reaction in the United States to the film version of The Color Purple, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. There was a backlash at the time of the film’s release. Many spoke out in the press against the film’s negative portrayal of black men and black families. To be honest, this had never occurred to me when I watched it (as a white English girl). What did resonate was a story about strong women, strong female characters, and ones that were different in nature to each other, not just another film narrative about bold male characters and a token pretty wife or girlfriend.
There were lots of questions to Alice from the audience, and lots of thought-provoking answers. The one that rang true for me and has remained with me ever since, and the reason I wanted to write this blog, was about western feminism. Alice made the point that women in the western world fighting for equality have focused on having equal access to men’s roles – such as getting equal recognition in the workplace. What we have failed to fight for is women’s traditional roles being equal. For babies born today in the UK, their fathers do not have the same rights as their mothers to take paid leave from work to care for them, and no job security if they decide to do so for more than 2 weeks. Yes, the policy is going to change, but in 2013 why have we waited so long for this to happen? And I don’t expect the social and culture pressures on women to be the primary carers to change over night as soon as the change in the law comes into force.
We’re not just limiting women’s progress in the workplace when we expect them to take up the childcare responsibilities, we’re devaluing their contribution in the home, by saying it’s not important enough for men to do this role. But we’re also limiting men too. Men often miss seeing their children grow up, take their first steps, hear their first words, because there is more pressure on them to be the breadwinner. Are men who choose to be stay-at-home dads able to do so without judgement? Maybe it depends what sector they work in. But from conversations I have had with friends who work in law, banking and other city jobs, it’s far more acceptable for a woman to go back to work part time or take a year off on maternity leave, than it ever would be for a man to do so. If we really want equality in the workplace and society, we have to give men the freedom to take on family responsibilities just as women can. Once traditional women’s roles are really acknowledged as equal then men and women will both really have more opportunities to live fulfilled lives. As one of my other favourite writers, Brene Brown, states, we put our expectations on men to be strong and not show too much emotion. I do think there is truth in this: ‘being emotional’ is seen to be traditionally feminine and we should encourage men to be express their emotions too without being perceived as weak. Otherwise, we are trapping men into a gendered role, one that isn’t good for anyone. It’s the inability to express emotion without being perceived as weak that leads to anger and violence.
They say meeting your heroes can be a disappointment. I wasn’t lucky enough to meet Alice Walker, but hearing her speak was far from a disappointment. Just as she has given me so much to think about from her writings, in person she left me pondering what Progressive Women should be addressing in terms of equality, and as a woman what expectations I put not only on myself but also the men in my life.
Join Dame Tessa Jowell MP and other inspiring women leaders at Progressive Women’s ‘Making it Happen’ Leadership conference on 11 May. Find out more and book your tickets here
We’re delighted to launch ticket sales for our May leadership conference, Making it Happen, with a keynote speech from Dame Tessa Jowell MP.
This one-day event addresses the deficit of women in leadership positions in the UK. It is designed to equip female attendees with the skills necessary to achieve their leadership potential – in business, politics and the public sector. Sessions include inspiring testimonies from successful female leaders and information on how to get selected as a political candidate, or make it to the top tiers of business.
Professional training workshops include ‘Why you should reach for the Board and how to get there‘ with Rowena Ironside Chair of Women on Boards, ‘Starting your own business‘ with Judy Oliver, and ‘Making it Happen with Social Media‘ with Emily Benet. Other workshops will address Balancing work and family, Getting ahead in politics, and Building confidence for success.
The programme’s keynote speaker will be Labour MP Dame Tessa Jowell, former Shadow Minister for London and for the Olympics.
Speaking about her role in the upcoming conference, Dame Tessa said:
‘I am delighted to be speaking at Making it Happen. There are not enough women in leadership positions – they make up only 22.5% of MPs and hold 17.3% of FTSE 100 Director positions. This Progressive Women event will galvanise action to rectify the deplorable lack of women decision-makers at the top of UK society.’
Caroline Watson, Director of Progressive Women, said:
‘We’re thrilled to be able to offer a full day of leadership training with professional coaches who have volunteered their time and expertise to help female future leaders. We have a fantastic line up of inspiring speakers and we’re touched to have so many incredible women on the programme.’
The conference is sponsored by the Electoral Reform Society.
When: Saturday 11 May
Where: Royal Foundation of Saint Katherine, in East London.
What time: The event will begin at 9.30 for 10am, until 4.30pm.
Full details and tickets (£20) are available from 12 March here
The only sound to be heard is the clack of my shoes on the hard floor as I step inside the chapel for Vespers. Twenty Carmelite nuns stand before me undisturbed and immersed in prayer. They live in silence and upon entering the order, they vow to let go of their material possessions, to be obedient to God, and to submit themselves to a life of chastity.
No, I haven’t travelled back in time to meet these women but, in fact, to the tiny village of Quidenham in Norfolk. Sister Shelagh broke the rule of silence for me as I asked her what it’s like to live in such an intensely female environment.
“There is a deep bond of unity between us and it’s very supportive, living in a community. I know I couldn’t live this life on my own, so I’m very grateful for the support of the community.”
Sister Shelagh was married before she became a Carmelite nun. After ten years in her relationship she says she still hadn’t found contentment. She said turning to a life of monasticism, without our sexual counterparts, gave her a sense of contentment and comfort.
“It’s very rewarding and it gives full scope for human relationships, there’s no sense of having to cut bits of oneself off in order to live this life.”
Judy has learned English and now has a job thanks to her women only community
Echoes of a patriarchal past
I’ve spent seven months investigating women-only communities, how they live and the issues they face. From Kenya to Brunei and now the UK, this convent is my last stop.
While I won’t disagree that all of the Sisters at the convent seem tranquil, I can’t help but think that chastity, obedience and silence echo past expectations of women in our once patriarchal society.
In today’s culture feminism and gender equality are two pressing and widely debated movements for the development of society and have been gaining momentum for over 100 years since the struggles of the Suffragettes in the late 18th Century. While all-female communities seem to be empowering women I wonder if they are holding women back.
This is not the case says Kat Pinder. As an organiser of RadFem 2013, a radical feminist conference in London, Kat considers herself a women’s liberationist and gender abolitionist. She says that all-female communities are essential for women’s liberation, “they are spaces where women can find themselves and remember themselves and understand who we are outside of male society”.
“A group of nuns, for example, who are based around a patriarchal religion, may not brand themselves as feminists initially but I have spoken a lot of women who have spent a lot of time in women-only spaces and that’s how they’ve ended up coming to feminism, even though what they were doing was not necessarily organised around feminism.”
Jenny Eaton, from the Eos personal development programme for women, has seen this theory in motion and she says that women often become conscious feminists as a result of women-only environments.
“Women who have never thought like it before begin look at the world in a different way because they have a different experience of being in groups of women because, with the odd exception, I have found that women learning and training together bond, and they bond very quickly.
Women who have a positive experience of personal growth in a group of women, it actually makes them a feminist in a more active way.”
Of course, it’s not just religion that brings women together and not all these women are feminists. So what makes them want to be part of a world without men?
Clinical psychologist Bhavna Negandhi says that, as women, it’s in our nature to thrive in all-female environments:
“If you look at it from a biological and historical perspective, an evolutionary perspective, that’s what women did. Men used to go out hunting and the all-female community was left behind to help each other out with children, companionship, emotions, and have general chit chat.
“Even now, while men turn to women for emotional support, women don’t seem to get the same from men. Women prefer to get their emotional support from other females and maybe wanting to be a part of all-female group is probably for that emotional and even practical support.”
A Kenyan cooperative
It was in the Kenyan Chalbi desert where I met a group of women who do just this. Having escaped from forced marriage to a HIV positive man three times her age, twenty-year-old Judy, pictured, found the Umoja Women’s Group: a community of women working and living together, where there are no men allowed.
She told me how when she arrived in the small town of Archer’s Post, the women here took her in as their child and looked after her.
“When I came here, I heard that the village called Umoja was for women with problems, so when I arrived the women here took me in like their child and now I am ok, I am happy.”
These Kenyan women sell traditional homemade jewellery to passing tourists in order to provide for their children
Since its modest beginning in the 90s, when the village was just one mud hut and handful of destitute women, the community has grown enormously. Now the 48 women who live here, belonging to many different tribes, make and sell traditional tribal jewellery to tourists in order to keep the village running and have recently built a preschool for their children.
Bhavna says that when it’s not religion bringing women together, it’s the need for support of some kind like that of the women of Umoja, but there will always be competition and rivalry and there will, and always has been, bitchiness.
Surreptitious sabotage and sisterhood
The WRAC was disbanded in the early 90s to make way for gender integration across the military
As an American teen, writer Jillian Lauren lived in an opulent palace in the colourful city of Brunei occupied by over 20 women who were all competing for the attention of one man: the Prince of Brunei, Jefri Bolkiah.
In this modern version of the traditional harem there was fierce competition, surreptitious sabotage and shifting alliances among the girls. But even while they were contending with one another, it wasn’t always a ‘mean girls’ act.
“It was a really competitive environment in terms of the relationships between us girls, but there were some real friendships that arose out of it and I do think that women will take care of each other and that we did on some level.”
It is this consistent theme that runs throughout the groups that I have met in this investigation: this sense of sisterhood. Gender segregation has been a habitual part of society in the past, from single-sex education to the units in the armed forces, and men and women have fought for equality and integration in such environments. The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was disbanded in the 90s after women demanded they be treated equally to men. Now both sexes live and work together throughout the military, but some are still not happy. Ex-members of the WRAC say they often preferred the single sex structure, leading to questions about whether it is actually gender integration, rather than segregation that is holding women back.
Lottie Gross is an ambitious freelance multimedia journalist graduating from Bournemouth University, 2013.
Caroline Watson is Co-founder and Director of Progressive Women
This International Women’s Day is a time of reflection on the progress women have made towards equality in society, and of course, the progress still yet to be made. I grew up believing that I could do whatever I wanted and that any opportunities open to men were also open to me. So as I got older and entered the professional world it came as a surprise to realise that those high up in all the companies I have worked in tend to be male. In the open plan office there are plenty of women, but the higher up the chain you go the less women there are. Where are they??
I just finished reading ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Board Room’ by Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham, with Tom Lloyd. They highlight that female-held directorships at the UK ‘s 100 largest listed companies fell from 121 (10.5%) in 2005 to 117 (10.35%) in 2006. They also note that the female FTSE Report 2007 noted that women accounted for 36% of managers and directors compared with 31% in 2006. So at least that shows some progress in the right direction (or at least 6 years ago!). However, women were paid less than men, partly because they were promoted earlier.
Does it matter? Personally, I’d like to see equal representation in positions of power. But is it good for business? According to McKinsey it is. According to Thomson and Graham a study by McKinsey and Co ‘companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top management level are also the companies that perform the best.’
Thomson and Graham make the argument that the problems the world faces are so complex that we need all the talent available to solve them, and that limiting the recruitment pool to less than 50% of the population is missing out on 50% of the talent. ‘More women on the boards of our large companies isn’t going to solve these problems at a stroke, ofcourse, but it will contribute to their solution, by increasing the reservoirs of human ingenuity, imagination, insight and will available to address them.’
The book actually only spends the first chapter making the case for women on boards, and the remainder of the book focuses on advice and guidance for women and recruiters. They make the case that there isn’t a shortage of qualified candidates, and not a shortage of board positions. What they observe is that women are sufficiently well prepared for board positions and companies can and should do more to steer their senior women in the right directions. They also emphasise what women can do to improve their likelihood of reaching the board. Some key tips they cover include:
- The language of the board is legal and financial. An understanding of company law and finance is essential. Finance isn’t rocket science, London Business School runs an intensive residential financial seminar for senior managers four times a year.
- Gravitas is an important quality for a director. But it isn’t something you’re born with. If you assume a calm, considered personae, and diligently school yourself always to behave in a way that projects gravitas, you will come to be seen as having gravitas.
- Raise your profile. Get out more: attend conferences, go to meetings on more general strategic issues, be opinionated, well informed and vocal. Make sure those who matter know what you have achieved and that you are ready for new challenges.
- Deep reflection, insight and development of self-awareness are the route to authentic, effective and influential leadership. Find trusted colleagues or friends to give you feedback and support. Find a mentor. Get an executive coach.
At times the authors fall into relying on cliches, such as ‘Unlike men you can’t rely on your natural instincts to compel you to grab opportunities when they present themselves’. I’m sure there are many men out there who don’t feel that it is their natural instinct to grab opportunities. But it’s not to say this isn’t something successful men and women need to condition themselves to do.
At Progressive Women, we’re inspired by the work achieved by Thomson and Graham to support women on their path to the Board, and this book is invaluable for any woman wanting to reach the board, and for businesses who want to maximise their access to the talent pool. We want to see more women on boards and across all leadership positions. That’s why we’re delighted to have Rowena Ironside, Chair of Women on Boards, joining us for our Leadership conference on 11 May. Rowena will be one of a line up of professional leadership coaches delivering workshop sessions on a range of topics from ‘Starting your own company’, ‘Getting selected and elected’, ‘Balancing work and family’, and of course ‘Reaching the Board’. If you haven’t yet thought about adding Board Member to your career trajectory, it’s time to start thinking about it. Regardless of where you are in your career now, Rowena will be on hand to help you think about what steps will take you on that path. This will be just one of a range of professional workshops on offer to help you develop your leadership skills. What we have come to realise at Progressive Women is that women can support each other to reach the top, but for women to get to the top it’s up to us as women to choose that path, believe we can get there and seek out the help we need to do so.
For more information on ‘Making it Happen: Progressive Women’s Leadership conference’ on 11 May, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Tickets will be on sale in the next week.
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Our guest blogger is Lovejit K. Dhaliwal, a London-based journalist, documentary-maker and academic.
I’ve got to say I was excited about attending this event at the Tate Modern in London, but wasn’t quite sure what I would find. Directed towards The Tank area of the gallery, I was ushered in, behind big black doors. Inside was a hub-bub of conversations. The cavernous area was dimly lit and in front of me I could see four or five rows of yellow tables – some occupied, others not. It’s quite busy and there are lots of visitors – women and men.
Walking around these collections of tables I was struck by the earnest faces of the women speaking to each other. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear what they were talking about and only caught a few words here and there. Some mentioned the environment, others housing and education. I almost felt as if I had my nose pressed up against the glass window but couldn’t quite hear what was going on. In one way this was frustrating but on another it just roused my curiosity even more.
I saw some of the women’s stories being written up and projected on to the screens behind them and my curiosity was sated. Glancing around me everyone had their heads turned towards these walls, staring intently at what was being written and reading along. Some of the stories were incredible – for instance, one I read was about the fight for decent housing and approaching landlords. (Some things don’t change!) Others talked about campaigning against apartheid or nuclear arms. It was thrilling. And then I thought, but why don’t I hear these stories more often? These women must have so much to tell.
A former social worker in the 1970s, Joyce Robert Shaw was fighting for abortion laws and cuts in social services. As an older woman she feels very passionately about the NHS “being smashed” and public services being cut. “It’s not just the jobs that are lost but also services… everyone thinks social services are for other people but we will all need them”. She also feels its a disgrace that students now have to pay £9,000 for education and the rights fought for in the 20th century are being snatched away. For Joyce, though, the one thing that makes her really angry is the expectation of having to work longer as we all live longer. “I worked as a social worker for 30 years. [She's now 67]. When I was 60 it was hard work, listening to people’s problems and responding effectively. I didn’t feel I could give a decent service.”
Another activist I spoke to was Liz Rothschild, who’s taken part in several campaigns ranging from nuclear arms to death and dying. She believes it’s vital for women to continue to be actively involved in causes, “We have different perspectives so we need to be heard. And as older women … well, I believe a healthy society has an active dialogue between the generations. Youth brings impetuosity, bravery and freshness. Age brings a considered sense of perspective and other gifts. When we were young, the elders were given too much power, now we’ve overvalued youth and we actually need a dialogue.”
This event is certainly thought-provoking and Liz’s words chime with my thoughts – as I’ve often felt that older people are often air-brushed out of society. As biologist Alison Jolly gets ready to leave, she gives me her reasons of why she’s here – her concern for the environment, “which is bigger than anything” as an issue. Working mainly in Madagascar, she’s keen to grab everyone’s attention on climate change – “it’s bigger than wars”. Alison is also realistic, she knows it’s not at the forefront of peoples’ minds – although she believes it should be. “We need a few more droughts and cyclones here in Britain”, says Alison. That would certainly get the government’s attention.
I also manage to speak to Robin Bailey West, who fought for decent housing in the 1970s. She’s keen to point out to me how different society was then and now, “People are very interested in themselves… they are all self-absorbed and not looking at the bigger picture”.
It feels as if I’ve been in a whirlwind with so many ideas and stories floating in the air. I feel privileged to have eavesdropped on a bit of their lives. For a moment, just for a moment, I feel a twinge of envy. They lived in exciting times! Protesting and taking action against unequal pay, beauty contests, rights for legal abortions, equal education, race discrimination, violence against women and nuclear arms. But then I look at the list again. Many of those issues are still with us, in the 21st century. And Robin’s words come back to me, are we all self-absorbed now? Do any of us care about the bigger picture? Time to think and take action, I think to myself!
Clare Laxton is a pro-choice campaigner and works in the charity sector.
Generally not a week goes by without one article or another speculating on what is or isn’t within the realm of feminist (including this one actually). A couple of weeks ago the hot topic was whether Beyoncé was forfeiting her feminism by posing scantily-clad on the cover of GQ. Last year it was a big hoo-ha over whether Conservatives could be feminists (Harriet Harman MP thought not but a few female Conservative MPs, including Amber Rudd MP, took issue with that argument).
All of this commentary and interest got me thinking about my feminist beliefs and where the line in the sand was for me. Now don’t get me wrong, I think feminism should be as inclusive movement as possible – we should be fighting together against the exclusive patriarchal society we currently live in – but is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed in feminism?
In an effort to form a coherent argument on this I went back to what feminism is actually about – establishing equal politics, social and economic rights for women, all over the world, without exception. For me, this movement is centred around equality, respect for women and choice.
Choice is an important word here as not many classic definitions of feminism talk about choice – but it is vital if women are to be truly equal in society. As we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Roe vs Wade in the USA it really brought home to me how much we owe the feminist campaigners of the past and how much further we have to go until women truly have the right to exercise choice over their bodies freely and without judgement.
Supporting a woman’s right to choose is an inalienable facet of feminism. It should be feminism’s line in the sand.
Looking back through the history books and feminists’ many achievements, and the battles we continue to fight, securing reproductive rights and choice has always been a vital part of feminism. Having a choice when faced with pregnancy, and society supporting that choice, is a feminist way of thinking. We support women and respect them – there can be no other way.
Being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean that you would choose abortion for yourself. Being pro-choice is unquestioningly supporting a woman’s right to choose an abortion if she wants or needs one. Being pro-choice is respecting a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body and reproduction. Simple.
I have thought and thought about it and I simply cannot contemplate how someone who claims to be a feminist and supports the principles of equality and respect for women cannot be pro-choice. I am happy to have the debate about this, but as yet I cannot see how anti-choice principles (of forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy if it is against her wishes) could be compatible with what I understand to be feminism.
So, on this 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade let us take time to thank those feminist campaigners who secured hard-won reproductive rights for us and think about the fights we still have to win – fights to secure equal and unqualified access to contraception and reproductive health services, in the UK and across the world.
Let’s respect women’s right to choose, continue to fight for equality and do it under the proud banner of feminism.
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