Hashtag feminism: radical or banal?

Battle of Ideas festival 2014, Saturday 18 October, Church House, London


Today’s feminism seems a far cry from its historic roots. In the developed world, at least, many of the issues that animated the fight for equality and women’s rights – from workplace discrimination to abortion – seem largely resolved. While only around 13 per cent of FTSE 100 corporate board members are female, few see this as the result of systematic oppression; in many professions, strenuous efforts are made to get women into leadership positions. More young women go to university than men; socially, women are visible, vocal and no longer doomed to domestic drudgery. Hardly anyone believes women are inferior and blatant sexist attitudes are considered anachronistic and embarrassing.

Nevertheless, recently there has been a resurgence of high-profile feminist campaigns that declare women are as oppressed as ever. The Everyday Sexism Project catalogues instances of sexism, such as cat calls and unwanted compliments, with a view to uncovering a hidden epidemic of misogynistic abuse. Is this a necessary corrective to complacency, or does the focus on relatively minor and subjective offences indicate that the battle for equality really is mostly won?

For better or worse, a new ‘hashtag feminism’ is all over social media, from #whyineedfeminism to #bringbackourgirls. #YesAllWomen, in response to the Isla Vista shooter, got over two million tweets in the week following the tragedy. Campaigners argue this highlights ‘the reality that misogyny is alive and well and all women have experienced some form of this in their lives’. Critics, however, point to a censoriousness in the new feminism. Today’s feminists often cheer when Twitter trolls are imprisoned for online abuse, #NoToPage3 and #losetheladsmags seek to police the newsstands, and student unions have banned allegedly sexist pop songs. The infamous online spats over intersectionality invariably end up in calls to ‘no platform’ either side. These censorious demands seem at odds with Germaine Greer’s assertion in The Female Eunuch that ‘freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure, is to betray it.’

So how did a fight for freedom in the Sixties become a demand for censorship today? Or is that assessment unfair? Are contemporary feminists right when they counter that the progress made towards equality has been limited? What about the falling rates of conviction for rape and sexual assault, the prevalence of online porn, the pornification of adverts and music videos? What about the fact that women have been disproportionately affected by the recession through cuts to services and part-time, flexible jobs? Even if there have been advances for professional women, what about the ‘deeply different life experiences between elite women and their less-privileged sisters’, as noted by Alison Wolf in The XX Factor? Does feminism still have something positive to offer those who want a better society for us all? Or, whatever change is still needed, does talk of misogyny and ‘patriarchy’ obscure rather than enlighten?

Kate Figes
journalist; author, Our Cheating Hearts – love & loyalty, lust & lies

Ann Furedi
chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion

Kate Maltby
theatre critic, The Times; associate fellow, Bright Blue; researcher on intellectual life of Elizabeth I

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive