NS March 4th, 2010
This is the first in a run of book reviews I hope to do in the coming months, seeing as I have a backlog of relatively new feminist non-fiction to read. First up is ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard, former campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society, an organisation that campaigns for social and economic justice for women in the UK.
Before I get to the review, I’d just like to make a somewhat-tangential aside about Ms. Banyard’s place of employment. While I know that there are sectors within which unpaid internships are the norm and that non-profits are one of the biggest culprits, I was pretty disheartened when I emailed the Fawcett Society a few months back to eagerly ask how I might assist them with some volunteering of some description. I didn’t mind if it was stuffing envelopes or whatever, I just wanted to get involved with an organisation I’ve always admired and would love to work for some day, when my return to paid employment outside the home is imminent. In reply to my query about volunteering on an occasional basis, I was sent details of an unpaid internship (what other kind is there?) instead. The kicker was that the job would’ve been perfect for me and I would have happily applied right then and there…if it actually paid any money. Travel expenses and £4/day for lunch isn’t going to pay the bills or the childcare though, that’s for sure. When I wrote back to say as much and again asked if there were any more occasional tasks or weekend events I could help with, I was told they “don’t really do that sort of thing.”
Now, the only reason I bring this up is because I think this is a good example of an organisation trying to do good work but putting restrictions on who can actually work for it. I mean, who else but the wealthy or those just out of university and living with their parents, sans any immediate financial responsibilities, could afford to work for three days a week for 3-6 months, completely unpaid? The assumption that those interested in feminist activism can do unpaid internships (especially by an organisation that campaigns for fair wages and equal pay for women!), just comes across as astoundingly arrogant and clueless to the realities most of us face. And the only reason I’m pointing this out is because some of my criticisms of this book are based around this general appearance of excluding some topics in favour of others that may be more sensationalist or controversial but less relevant to the majority of women’s everyday lives in the UK, ones that are affecting their livelihoods and personal lives in deeply-ingrained, meaningful ways. So with that grumble out of the way (and with it having no direct bearing on Banyard because she is not the sum of her employer’s policies, obviously), on to the review.
First off, I will say that my overall impression of the book as a tool to get the general public thinking about ways in which gender inequalities still exist is a fairly good one. If you ever heard someone say “We’ve/you’ve got equality now, what are you complaining about?” or use a term like “post-feminist world,” (has a more laughable phrase ever been uttered, aside from ‘post-racial’?) you could do worse to hand them ‘The Equality Illusion.’ For those unversed in gender issues, this is a good starting place. However, as Jess at The F-Word already pointed out in her review, Banyard is kind of preaching to the ‘yes, we all know this’ choir as far as how already-established feminists are likely to react to it.
The first chapter, on body image, does a pretty good job at dissecting the main issues — media representations of women, objectification, gender conformity, beauty standards and the beauty industry and how all of it is damaging to girls and women. The young women she interviews for this portion of the book indeed have heartbreaking tales of shattered self-esteem and distorted views of their bodies, but I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t include much in the way of how we can combat these images in our daily lives, not just by taking on the huge structures perpetuating and capitalising on it, which is a huge task that no one is really sure how to undertake.
One of the most important ways we can help girls (and boys, for that matter) build healthy self-esteems and realistic body expectations is through involved parenting and leading by example. The messages sent by a constantly-dieting mother who is always (only half-jokingly) calling herself a pig can be far more harmful and seep into a child’s subconscious than a parade of billboards with conventionally attractive, airbrushed models on them. Talking to your children about the messages they receive and the images they see can be a very effective tool in keeping their expectations healthy, yet Banyard does little, if anything, to mention empowered parenting as a potentially massive part of the ‘solution,’ as it were.
I have similar complaints about the chapter on education. Overall it’s very good in presenting facts and providing a context in which we can see the gaping inequalities still present in today’s schools, but where are the interviews with parents? What do they think of gendered behaviour, gendered education, the arguments for and against biological and socially-conditioned differences in the way boys and girls think and perform? What are their thoughts and concerns on how gendered education is effecting their kids and if they are counteracting that at home in any way? Speaking to the teachers and to the children themselves is all very well and good, but leaving parents out of the education equation just because they don’t actually attend school with their kids is trying to complete a 24-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 18 of the pieces.
I have similar complaints of the reproductive rights chapter, which deals, unsurprisingly, with teenage/young pregnancy and abortion but not much else. There is no mention of feminist issues relating to pregnancy or birth rights, or of the changing role and consequences of reproduction throughout a woman’s life. Again, the focus seems to be on young(ish) women and those who have chosen not to have children, at least for the time being.
From my corner of the feminist parenting blogosphere, there hasn’t been much hope that this book would be any different from most of the others in really dissecting some of the issues important to mothers, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the ‘Sexism in the City’ chapter to be dedicated almost solely to the injustices and inequalities that women face with regards to work and childcare and the division of domestic labour. The case study she uses to open the chapter is about one woman”s struggle to care for her children and earn enough money to support them. Banyard asks some good questions and raises relevant topics, such as:
Why do so many women have to work below their skill level because those are the only jobs that fit around their caring responsibilities? Why are cleaning and other forms of traditional ‘women’s work’ (like carers and caterers) paid so little — and in particular less than traditional ‘men’s work’ (like plumbers and decorators) that require equivalent levels of skill and effort? Because gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal and women make up nearly half the workforce it is easy to assume that all is now fair and equal. But the near equivalent numbers of women and men in the workplace is where any ‘equality’ ends: 30,000 women are sacked each year in the UK simply for being pregnant, women make up only 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors and women are paid on average 22.6 per cent less per hour than men.
She also writes:
When discussing women in the workplace a standard media refrain is to ask whether women can ‘have it all’, i.e. a family and a career. But women have always had to combine work and caring. For many, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, that question is redundant; if they don’t work their family doesn’t eat. The real question is why is it only women who have to choose between a family and maximising their career potential? And, in fact, why should anyone have to choose between these two things at all?
Banyard goes on to talk about discrimination against mothers at work, the belief that women’s careers are curtailed by their ‘choices’, not because the system is set up to favour those without caring responsibilities, and the concept of a ‘sticky floor’ that exists well below the ‘glass ceiling.’ She interviews a charity that supports working parents and talks to working mothers themselves, making a real effort to understand and explain the disparities they face. There were things she didn’t touch on, of course — issues relating specifically to mothering are about more than just combining work and family — but for a feminist book by (from what I gather is) a relatively young, childless woman, I thought it was pretty well done.
Finally, the chapters on violence against women and the sex industry were informative, compelling and passionate. It seems pretty obvious that these issues are the most important to Banyard, and many young feminists, and she/they are doing a great job of speaking out against them. However (didn’t you know that was coming?), I will say that while I am 100% supportive of feminist aims to help women exit prostitution and to combat the pervasive and often-unpleasant sex industry, I can’t help but feel that the intense focus on it can be a bit off-putting to the general public. As Rachel Cooke pointed out in her review in the Guardian:
Mostly, she is preoccupied with finding ways to help women exit prostitution, and while I’m all for that, too, there are 30 million women in Britain, of whom not even a quarter of 1% sell sex for a living. What about the rest of us?
That’s not to say that prostitutes or sex industry workers don’t deserve our help and attention, because they unreservedly do. But if a book about gender inequality is trying to reach out to large swathes of people in one country, many of whom probably don’t identify as feminist in the first place, it needs to be relatable to their lives. Focusing on the sex industry, or female genital mutilation or forced marriages in other parts of the world (for example) can be, rightly or wrongly, seen as directing focus away from the issues that women right here in the UK face, all around them, every day. Portrayals of Western feminists as young, childless, middle-class, white girls who want to save ‘those poor women’ (sex industry workers, African women, child brides, etc..) from themselves may be off base entirely, but the fact is that this is the image they (we) have been saddled with by some. If a book’s aim is to foster greater understanding and enthusiasm for gender issues within a Western framework and amongst the women who inhabit it, I have to wonder if narrowing the focus a little bit and not necessarily worrying about casting the net wide in an effort to be ideologically diverse would actually catch more fish, as it were.
Again, I don’t want to insinuate that international problems or ones affecting a small, specific minority are not our problems or that we should be discouraging others from thinking about and acting upon them, but if Banyard truly wants to inspire ‘grassroots feminism’ (to which she devotes most of her last chapter), she would do well to remain focused on issues a bit closer to home and our hearts and remember that most of us — especially those living with children, or with disabilities, or financial hardships — can’t easily attend meetings and marches, or get online to check out all the latest blogs and conferences, or partake in unpaid internships.
Overall, this is a good ‘primer’ book but its approach is too broad and there’s not enough fire in the belly. We need less theoretical pontificating and more solid ideas for action. Because until we start organising the latter, the former is all we will ever do.
Cross-posted at Fertile Feminism