Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The rise and rise of the UK Feminista

Bucking the trend for August's silly-season, I've been pleasantly surprised to see some refreshingly even-handed reporting in the UK national press. At the weekend, the campaign organisation UK Feminista held an activist training weekend for aspiring feminist activists. Unexpectedly, in all the reporting I saw, there was none of the usual stereotyping and lazy criticism we've come to expect since the mid-1980s.

It isn't my first brush with UK Feminista. At the Compass conference I attended earlier in the summer, I was exceptionally impressed with how founder Kat Banyard portrayed the issues confronting feminists as a fiercely contemporary challenge to both women and men. She spoke passionately to current concerns about equality, employment, public services and tackling a culture of disrespect.

For many years, feminism has felt like a closed shop to many men who espouse feminist ideals. I know that for me, my concern around gender equity has been more readily channeled through my activism for LGBT equality, an area that is sometimes not immune to peddling sexist viewpoints. Yet I feel that UK Feminista have a good chance of broader-based success because they see men as crucial partners in making change happen. Their approach is more media-savvy, using social-media networks to get their message over and being very careful in choosing potent current issues that matter to everyone. Women, especially those starting out in the job market, are feeling the bite of the recession with reduced opportunities. The ladders of state support are being disproportionately kicked away from them. Interrogating fairness and inequality is high on everyone's agenda - from female low pay, to those living in deprived communities scarred by the recent riots, through to the lost of trust in political, business and media elites. Under such circumstances, sexism is an even less tolerable distraction.

And we need to challenge it now. An impact analysis by the Fawcett Society has shown that the Government's austerity cuts are hitting women hardest. Home Secretary Theresa May warned colleagues of this behind the scenes, although she was ignored. We shouldn't be surprised. Political parties are still dominated by wealthy men. With only modest improvements at the last General Election, women are still pitifully represented in the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat ranks.

There is an issue here for the Greens too. We have made great strides, with our Leader (also our first MP) being a woman, as well as our leading GLA Member Jenny Jones and MEP Jean Lambert. They represent a respected and inspiring "front bench" of female Green politicians, but I'm anxious that nobody repairs the glass ceiling they have shattered before the next generation of female leaders comes forward. I do wonder whether their prominence can lead ordinary members of the Green Party to uncritically assume that we've cracked the gender representation issue and side-stepped the pitfalls others have fallen into. That is something that we need to guard against.

We should constantly interrogate the way our party functions and how it encourages and facilitates engagement from women activists. I think the time is upon us to have a serious party-wide conversation about how we not only increase representation in our number of female politicians, but how we transform our political outlook as a party to embed these gains into the DNA of our party. The growing success of UK Feminista is a stark reminder that women-focussed policies are crucial to solving the complex problems facing this country and aren't something tacked on to political policy as an "added extra".

Whilst we have that debate, I'll also be keeping an eye out to see if UK Feminista start up a group in Brighton, because when society faces hard times and difficult choices, female equality will (as always) be the battleground on which it is fought.

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