Have women killed feminism?
Ashley Tellis argues that the women’s movement has been the biggest failure of the century and that women are to blame for it
The idea for International Women’s Day has its origins in a socialist campaign both in Europe and the United States around women workers, their wages, their rights. It began in Europe and Russia at a time of revolutionary ferment with women like Alexandra Kollontai in Russia, Clara Zetkin in Germany, Sylvia Pankhurst in Britain, women garment workers striking, women trade unionists rebelling and the idea was to use the day to press for demands. Yet what it has been reduced to today is a silly corporate celebration of ‘loving women’ or some such shit, just another day like Mother’s day and Valentine’s day.
It is amazing how institutionalization, by the state and international bodies, has erased the radical origins of this day from public memory, particularly as almost none of the demands those women were pressing for have been met for women. Women are still paid less than men for the same work, still forced to take on most of the labour of domesticity and childcare, still forced into heterosexual monogamy and marriage and still brought up to believe in these ideologies and institutions.
In effect, what Juliet Mitchell called the four structures that integrate women and which need to be transformed – production, reproduction, sexuality, socialization – all still await transformation. Mitchell stressed that all four structures need transformation simultaneously as “a modification in any one of them can be offset by a reinforcement of another.” This amounts to just a permutation and not a structural transformation and we have seen many such permutations over the twentieth century into the twenty-first.
Socialism itself did not seriously engage with the women’s question at all and that debate remains unresolved. Other traditions, like psychoanalysis, developed brilliantly by thinkers like Mitchell to transform the family as an institution, have not been taken up by the women’s movement globally. In many ways, it seems like we are just at the beginning of the process of transformation that Mitchell talked about decades ago yet feminism has already been reduced to sexist state programmes (‘Don’t kill the girl child, she’s tomorrow’s mother’), the consumerist lingo of the corporate world where feminism is just another marketable commodity (‘Designing their way to success,’ title of one of the special stories for women on Women’s day in a national rag) or the spinning of an illusion that we are in a ‘post-feminist’ world (Delhi University English Department conference last year).
Where do we begin cutting through this shit to ask some real questions and build collective struggle? How to do it? The Gender Studies Group at Delhi University organised a conference in the run-up to Women’s day to raise these questions and in a University with thousands of women not more than five turned up on all three days. Who were they speaking to? The walls?
The fact is that women are the most anti-feminist people in the contemporary world. They have bought into the backlash against feminism hook, line and sinker and don’t want anything to do with the f word. They have no sense of history, their own history, how they got where they are and they don’t give a damn.
Middleclass women are mesmerised by the rational choice theory throw up by late capitalism, make deeply conservative decisions and call them ‘choices.’ They are immersed in the soppy popular culture that celebrates their being used to wipe the floor with by men (Adele, Taylor Swift). They cannot envisage lives without dependence on men. They cannot dream of worlds other than marriage. They do not demand for anything in the professional world or the world of work. They fabricate a designer feminism that maintains that if they speak about their bodies and masturbating in their shallow writing (Tishani Doshi, Meena Kandasamy) and if they send pink chaddis to right wing politicians or dress up like ‘sluts’ (a word they do not even have the guts to claim, like in the Delhi march which became the besharmi march)), they are liberated.
Working class, Dalit, adivasi women are no better, romanticised though they often are. They stand behind their men and accept structural inequalities in production, embrace reproduction, accept the family and socialise their children to do the same. They are used by their men as political shields (Meira Peibis, Oriya women and children lying on the roads against mining) and kept out of all decision-making and political power and they accept that.
What do we put all this down to? False consciousness? The failure of the women’s movement? Whatever the reason, the fact is that it is time women went back to the drawing board, looked deep and hard at their own history and what has been achieved and what has not. It is time they realised that almost nothing has really been transformed, that far from a post-feminist world we are almost in a pre-feminist world. It is women who can and must change that. But do they even care?