Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, and when she took the role from Caroline Lucas MP they became the first consecutive female leaders of a political party in the British history. Sadly we still have a long way to go in ‘making sure the new world works for all of the human race, not just a small percentage of the male half of it.’
Illustration by Spike
How the Other Half Live by Natalie Bennett
One of the most telling statements I’ve ever heard about feminism came from one of its grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, who said at the launch of her brilliant book Dreamers of the New Day: “In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there.” I was only a child in the Seventies, but I can remember a time in my youth when I thought that feminism should have a list of goals that you could tick off one by one, collecting one advance and then moving on to the next.
Those were the days, you might say. Such confidence today is thin on the ground.
Some advances have proved relatively stable. Access for woman on equal terms to most jobs, at least at entry level, has been broadly secured. You might get the occasional old consultant complaining about the number of women at medical school, but, in general, girls and young women do have access to courses on equal terms that their grandmothers could only dream of. About 40 per cent of young women finish their initial run of education with a degree today, compared to 30 per cent of men.
And the expectation that women will build a career, rather than just filling in time between finishing their education and marriage – the way my grandmother worked in the post-room of a department store and rose to be the boss of the “girls” because she was the oldest one left, and practically “on the shelf” – is now entirely the norm.
Lip service, at least, to full employment opportunities is also now de rigeur. With the exception of headline-seeking dinosaurs like Nigel Farage, few will claim that women have less to contribute to the workplace than men, and disclaimers along the lines of “we’re seeking to be an equal opportunity employer” scatter across the jobs pages.
Yet it’s not an accident that it’s in areas in which they contribute to the economic model of growth, consumerism and the god of ‘the economy’ that feminists have found it easiest to make and hold ground. That two wages for most of the lifecycle are essential for all but the richest to achieve a basic decent lifestyle was not what was being sought.
When it comes to changing the model of work – making the workplace appropriate for women (and men) with caring responsibilities, allowing for different life paths and experiences – there’s been little real progress. And where we saw the most progress was in the public sector – the jobs that are now being privatised, with slashed pay and conditions, at a great rate.
The welfare state that in past decades, however imperfectly, acknowledged that there were different forms of contribution to the present and future of society – in caring for the young, the old, in making contribution to those who couldn’t find an economic place – is under severe and sustained attack, little defended by even those you’d expect to be standing up for it. Who can forget Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, i.e. Labour Shadow, promising that her party, if elected, would be tougher on benefits than the Tories?
When on average one-fifth of an average woman’s income comes from benefits (the figure for men being one-tenth), the likely impact is obvious. The bedroom tax, the cuts to council tax benefit, the welfare benefit cap, the slashing of legal aid – all of the attempts to make the poor pay for the crisis created by the (overwhelmingly male) bankers – are falling significantly more heavily on women. Single pensioners, predominantly women, have lost more than 10% of their income, while single parents (92% female) have lost 15.6%. And the loss of services means women as carers, as community stalwarts, as the final backup, are facing an even heavier load.
So, economically, it’s clear that women are going backwards. The news at the end of last year that the gender pay gap, which was creaking slowly under 10% for full-time workers (nearly double for part-timers), has grown again, is no surprise.
Then there’s the question of women’s access to power. The painful, halting struggle to get more MPs into the Commons is awful to watch, as the largest parties wiggle and twist, often with push from the leadership and pushback from local selectors, only to see many women MPs find the boarding school atmosphere and general blokeishness more than they want to tolerate, leaving after a term or two. Britain ranks equal 53rd in the global ranking of percentage of women in parliament.
I’m proud of the fact that when I took over from Caroline Lucas in 2012 as leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, it was the first time one woman leader of a parliamentary party had handed over to another in British political history. But that it took until 2012 to get to that point is telling.
Women make huge contributions in terms of citizenship – when I go to local community meetings the norm is to see a female-dominated audience of citizens, women who’ve squeezed time out of child care, elder care and long working hours, unpaid of course, facing a line of suits, officials paid for their work of consulting the experts – the local residents. Yet in local government too, they’re hugely under-represented.
Then there’s business and the question of female leadership. Norway has shown the way with its 40% quota for women on major companies’ boards; many other European states are following. Yet here in the UK, the City and its allies are kicking and screaming about the impossibility of it all – just as they are at restrictions on bankers bonuses and on making multinational companies pay their taxes.
Women’s institutions still struggle to maintain funding and hold out for the long term. The Fawcett Society (declaration of interest, I’m a trustee) is a rare example of a long-term women’s political institution, with a continuous history dating back to 1866, but the wonderful, purpose-built, lottery-funded Women’s Library lasted a scant decade before it was abandoned by its former sponsor.
And all of these levels of disadvantage for women are multiplied for those who suffer discrimination in other ways, through their membership of an ethnic minority, through disabilities, through class.
These deficits of cash, resources and power play into the issue of violence against women. There’s little doubt that financial pressures, unjust immigration laws and cuts will force more women to stay in dangerous relationships, that the services that might have helped them escape are struggling to survive, let alone to provide all of the assistance and support that is needed.
As a politician, I quote lots of statistics, and have to regularly check they’re still up-to-date, but sadly the figure that two women a week are killed in Britain by a partner or ex-partner just goes on and on.
I’ve focused here on women in Britain – but, of course, overall the situation of women in Britain looks positively rosy compared to the global situation. Three statistics are all that is needed to paint the picture: women do around two-thirds of the world’s work, grow about half of its food, and own 1% of the world’s assets. As we approach the centenary of significant numbers of women getting a vote in Britain, you have to think that our great grandmothers would have expected we’d have made a great deal more progress by now.
So what to do? We can, and must, keep battling on over all of these issues and others (I fear that the need to defend access to abortion and contraception will be back in the news soon).
But there’s a huge looming positive opportunity. It’s very clear that our current economic model is broken (not to mention our political model). There will be massive change in the short to medium term: a society in which 20% of workers earn less than a living wage, with somewhere between 1 and 4 million workers on zero-hours contracts, one in 10 working fewer hours than they’d like, where food banks are one of the few boom industries, and which uses each year on average more than three times the sustainable resources available to it will not continue.
New ideas are gaining ground: a living wage for all would be a start, a citizens’ or basic income a more revolutionary step forward; making multinational individuals and rich individuals pay their taxes is something that even David Cameron pays lip service to, even if the practice is the reverse of the rhetoric; a land value tax that might eventually significantly rebalance wealth is on the table and ground-up democratic initiatives and community groups are establishing themselves, sometimes in unlikely places.
The world is going to change. And for women, that’s good news. What we have to do is make sure the new world works for all of the human race, not just a small percentage of the male half of it.
Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales. A journalist by profession she edited Guardian Weekly between 2007 and 2012. She is a trustee of the Fawcett Society, founder of the blog Carnival of Feminists, and an active campaigner on women’s issues.