The Gender Agenda

Friday January 30th, 2015

For the 2014 WEN Wales Annual Lecture, we invited Beatrix Campbell, Pragna Patel and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett to share their experiences and thoughts on Fourth Wave feminism and the current status of women in the UK.

WEN Wales are to be congratulated for putting together such an inspiring panel for their annual lecture on 27 November 2014. In two hours, author and academic Beatrix Campbell, Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of Vagenda, lifted our spirits, brought us firmly back down to earth and importantly, got us angry, if we weren’t already.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett spoke passionately about the action that younger feminists are taking, both online and through grassroots practical action. She spoke to the rising number of young women and girls who comfortable calling themselves feminists, compared to a few years ago and there is much to be positive about in relation to the 4th wave of feminism.

By contrast, Pragna Patel’s starting point was that ‘we are in serious trouble – witnessing a wholesale assault on the gains we have made’. Her well-evidenced argument is that the state has lost its moral compass – the UK withdrawal from participation in the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean being a clear demonstration of this.

She also gave us a range of examples of religion encroaching on the law, impinging very negatively on the rights of BME women. One, quite extraordinary, was the issuing of practice guidance by the Law Society on drawing up sharia compliant wills. The guidance included the fact that women can only inherit half of what men can inherit and illegitimate children can’t inherit anything at all. This guidance was highly criticised, has now been withdrawn and an apology issued by the Law Society. Religious privilege, Pragna noted, works against solidarity.

Pragna urged us to consider freedom as well as equality – ‘how can I be free if others are not?’ Solidarity between marginalised groups has to be based on a shared vision of equality and freedom for all.

Beatrix Campbell shared Pragna’s perspective – ‘the moment is as bleak as it can be’. Her analysis takes a global perspective; the world is in the midst of a new historic settlement, a new economic and political order based on neo liberalism. This is a settlement that has at its heart patriarchal concepts which reinstate traditional gendered roles such as caring. She noted that in the most economically dynamic region of the world (China), women now earn 67% of what men earn, compared to 86% before economic liberalism, constituting ‘the mother of all redistributions’.

‘Public services are required for feminism to be achieved – the withdrawal of these services – as part of this new historic settlement – makes equality and justice impossible.’ Concepts such as value for money, Beatrix contends, are based on a patriarchal world view in terms of what can and cannot be afforded and what comprises ‘value’.

The annual lecture benefitted from some quirky and amusing chairing from Dame Rosemary Butler, who, in closing the event, reminded us, ‘when you move up the ladder – never pull it up behind you – hold out a hand to help other women up’.

Much of the evening did not make for easy listening – it certainly served to get rid of any sense of complacency that any of us might have had. I came away with a mix of emotions – positive, negative, anger – and lots of questions for myself about what I do about the gender agenda. The sign of a stimulating discussion and debate which Beatrix referred to as ‘a little jewel that needs protecting’.

For me, solidarity emerged as a significant theme – as Rosemary Butler said, ‘united we stand’.

Tamsin Stirling

More from the speakers

Articles by Pragna Patel

The End of Equality by Beatrix Campbell

Women in Public Life scheme – Rosemary Butler & Women Making a Difference