By Stevi Jackson and Victoria Robinson - Centre for Women's Studies, University of York, UK
As we approach International Women's Day it is worth celebrating feminism's achievements as well as acknowledging how much still needs to be done. The theme for 2017's campaign is 'Be Bold for Change', which necessitates, we would argue, being bold in how we frame and celebrate past and current feminist achievements, in how we continue theoretically to frame our gendered understandings, as well as how we protest and organise against gendered inequality. The next special issue of Discover Society takes up some of these themes.
Feminism has made a significant impact on both sociology and the understanding of gender relations in the wider world. These two effects are not unrelated. From a sociology that was, at the beginning of the 1970s largely a sociology of men, where gender inequality barely figured at all, we now have a discipline in which gender has become a central issue and where it is now understood, researched and theorised as a complex social division intersecting with other divisions and inequalities. The feminist inspired work undertaken by sociologists has, in turn, provided evidence for campaigning and lobbying against gendered discrimination and oppression.
Gender inequality is recognised by many nations and international organisations – the UN in particular – as an issue worthy of attention. We should remember it was not always thus. It is a tribute to the work of feminists inside and outside the academy that this recognition exists. Take violence against women, an example that testifies to what has been achieved as well as the problems that remain. Up to the 1970s, in the UK and elsewhere, there was no protection for women who experienced domestic or intimate partner abuse and no legal recourse except (for married women) divorce. Rape was seen as an individual misfortune and often as 'victim precipitated'. In the 1970s feminists went to work on these issues, founding Women's Aid and Rape Crisis and staging the first Reclaim the Night marches. They began a long struggle for better treatment of women who experienced violence and eventually won legal reforms and changes in police and court procedures, though these are still clearly insufficient to protect and support women. This all took some time. In the UK, rape in marriage did not become a crime until 1991 and Coercive Control not until 2015. But the fact that this happened at all and that violence against women has been redefined as a social problem rather than an individual one represents gains for women, gains fought for and won by feminists. Feminist academics are consulted on the issue locally, nationally and internationally, which tells us that feminist research has become (at least in some forms) 'respectable' – where once many of those same feminists were seen as a 'lunatic fringe'. Yet violence against women remains a widespread and intractable problem – and a global one.
In celebrating International Women's Day it should not be forgotten that women in many parts of the world lack the gains that have been made in the UK and other parts of the global North and have little reason to celebrate. There are countries/regions in which the most basic rights of self-determination, bodily integrity and freedom of movement are denied to women and where poverty, racism and inequality are exacerbated by male dominance. There are also many places where women are not free to campaign for their rights or where their sometimes hard won freedoms are being eroded. To give just a few examples, we have witnessed: Chinese feminists being arrested for planning an International Women's Day campaign against sexual harassment in 2015; the reinstatement of an abortion ban in Russia and now abortion rights threatened in the USA; the lack of basic human rights for women in Saudi Arabia; unrecognised and unpunished rape and sexual assault in India; the continuing turbulent fight for women’s equality in Afghanistan; the denial of girls' rights to education in much of rural India and many countries in Africa and the kidnapping and rape of women in the world's conflict zones.
Such examples (and we could give many more) underline the importance of international campaigning and solidarity but, importantly, the need also to avoid imposing our own particular ideas of freedom and equality on women elsewhere. It has long been a basic tenet of the women's movement that women everywhere have a right to their own analyses of oppression and to define their own goals and paths to liberation. In this way a dialogue can ensue, both in the academy and on the streets, that continues the struggle to be bold and effect change.