Has feminism been one of our greatest failures? – Susan Dalgety
Investigating sexism saw Susan Dalgety begin to despair that true equality can ever be achieved, but she remains optimistic about creating a world inspired by women like Doris Lessing and Beyoncé.
Two little girls have just been born within five weeks of each other, but 5,000 miles apart.
Baby E came first. Her parents live in Fife, and work in Edinburgh. The NHS looked after her mum from the initial pregnancy test to post-labour breastfeeding advice. Dad got two weeks’ paternity leave and the Scottish Government gave Baby E a beautiful baby box, packed full of everything a 21st century baby could want, including cute Babygros, a digital thermometer and a poem by Jackie Kay. There was even a box of condoms tucked discreetly behind the playmat.
On Wednesday night, in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, Baby V arrived, two weeks late, and by Caesarean section. Her mum, a junior accountant with an international professional services firm, is one of the lucky few in Malawi to have private health insurance, which covered all her medical bills, from her 12-week scan to the operation.
There was no welcome gift from the government of Malawi. It cannot fund a basic health care service for its 18 million citizens, let alone give away free soft toys and teething rings for the 2,000 babies born every day. But Baby V’s mum and dad and her doting grandparents will make sure she has the best they can afford, from secondary education to shoes for church.
At first glance, the life chances of the girls look poles apart. One will grow up in the fifth richest country in the world, with all the advantages that accident of birth bestows. The other will come of age in one of the poorest countries in the world, where thousands of babies each year will not reach their fifth birthday, victims of common diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea or measles.
But they share one thing in common, which will decide their fate even more than their country of birth, or their parents’ professions. Their sex. As girls, even ones born nearly 60 years after the second wave of feminism crashed into life, they start with an inbuilt disadvantage compared to their male peers.
They are likely to earn less throughout their lives than boys born in 2019. Globally, women only make 77 cents for every dollar men earn, and UN Women calculates there will not be equal pay until at least 2069 – when Baby V and E will be 50.
The majority of human trafficking victims – 70 per cent – are female. Compared to boys, girls are at particular risk of being stolen and sold into sexual slavery. Three out of every four children trafficked are girls and despite concerted efforts by governments across the world, violence against women and girls remains stubbornly commonplace, in rich countries, as well as poor.
And humanity’s most complex and dangerous challenge, climate change, affects women and girls much more than it does men. The UN says 80 per cent of those people displaced by the effects of climate change, such as the recent floods in Mozambique and Malawi, are women.
It is hardly surprising then that climate change is one of the biggest worries facing girls today, according to a major research project published by Girlguiding earlier this week.
The majority of seven-to-ten-year olds who took part in the UK-wide survey said they wanted to live in a world where people cared more about the environment.
Their concerns were magnified by a 16-year-old girl who is rapidly becoming the voice of her generation. Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg did not mince her words when she spoke in Westminster a few days ago.
She described the UK’s response to climate change as “beyond absurd” and warned that the Government’s “ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind”.
As I ponder the future facing the two baby girls, I wonder if feminism has been one of the greatest failures of recent years, or at least has not lived up to its early promise.
Unarguably there has been some progress since Betty Friedan published ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in 1963, the book that sparked a feminist revolution, first across the US, then Europe and beyond.
Equal-pay legislation and the legalisation of abortion were significant strides towards equality. And the contraceptive pill, which only became available to single women on the NHS in 1974, has probably done more to free girls and women than any other intervention.
Young women do have more career choices than their mothers, or grandmothers, but the glossy campaigns for gender balance at work focus on professions such as law and medicine, while the majority of women work in low-paid, low-status jobs in the service sector. And stereotypes persist. Only one in ten of Scotland’s nurses and primary school teachers are male.
Sex inequality continues to infect all aspects of life. Less than a quarter of the biographies on Wikipedia – the fifth most visited website in the world – are about women, prompting a campaign #VisibleWikiWomen to get more notable women online.
And survey after survey shows that women still bear the brunt of domestic chores even while working full-time. We really do have to do it all, from keeping the family home clean to earning the monthly mortgage payment.
I have spent the last few months writing and thinking about women and girls. I started full of confidence that my grand-daughters could be what they wanted to be when they grew up – whether an astronaut or a hairdresser. That their sex would be an advantage in the 21st century, not a hindrance to their ambitions. That the future was female.
However, as I studied research that exposed how entrenched the pay gap was and waded through shops full of pink glitter and unicorns, I began to despair.
And as I cooed over photographs of Baby V minutes after she was born, thanks to the miracle of WhatsApp, I worried that, in the long term, the feminist revolution would only benefit professional women in rich countries. That the future was for the elite.
But I am forever an optimist. Social progress is never linear, nor is it particularly quick. The girls born in 2019 will benefit from advances won by pioneering women like Barbara Castle and Malala Yousafzai. They will celebrate a world culture inspired by women such as Doris Lessing and Beyoncé.
They will stand on the shoulders of female giants to build a world where all women and girls can flourish. I hope.