Its 40 years since the first National Women’s Liberation conference was held in the UK; since the language of the Female Eunuch and Sexual Politics and the media reveled in castigating women as bra-burning, man-bashing dykes.
During WW2 women were given opportunities to support the war effort and take on traditional male roles,. Then they were relegated to the domestic sphere. Gender expectations swung from one extreme to the other. It’s no coincidence that female fashion in the 1950s promoted the forerunner of Barbie; nipped in waistlines and pushed out breasts. Feminism was a reaction to cultural repression, to the curtailing of women’s freedom to participate on an equal social and economic level with men. It tackled gender discriminations such as equal pay and employment opportunities. But the free love, free spirit ethos of the 1960’s overlooked one crucial issue; responsibility for childcare. At the end of the day, someone has to position themselves in the private sphere and tend the domestic hearth. To achieve equality took more than raising consciousness, it required a fundamental shift of the status of mother and housewife; accepting them as valued occupations in their own right. Instead, equal employment opportunities today often involve paying other women to take on the childcare and domestic commitments instead.
The legacy of feminism is increased gender controls. There is a clear cultural backlash through media induced social pressure to conform to an idealised female identity; one that defies nature and is impossible to achieve. Predominant images of women are airbrushed into thin perfection. It’s laudable to display a pre-pregnancy body within weeks of giving birth. The mantra ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ is supported by anorexia focused websites and the promotion of the size zero ‘celebrity’ as a role model. Pressure on young women to conform to a stereotyped image of femininity has never been greater nor the female body so diminished. Parallels with the onset of the feminist movement 40 years ago are striking suggesting that activism against body politics cannot be very far away.