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The Big Story  Feminism has left women across the globe concentrated in low-paid, precarious work and a persistent gender pay gap.

An impressive 135 countries now enshrine maternity leave in law. But most women who juggle work and childcare will testify to the statistics that place domestic labour firmly in women’s court.Men are taking on more, yet if current trends continue, women in the West alone will have to wait until 2050 for a 50:50 split.2

Other gains are on more solid ground. The field of education has seen the biggest steps forward. Globally, as many girls as boys now attend primary school, and equal secondary enrolment is not far off.

When it comes to political power, the advances are near universal. Only Saudi Arabia and the Vatican still withhold the vote from women, while Africa currently has three female heads of state.

Legal progress is indisputable. Sexual harassment was so widely accepted that there was not even a name for it until the 1970s. It gained legal status in the US in 1986, and now, in 2014, close to two-thirds of countries have laws against it; sexual violence is recognized as a weapon of war and prosecutions have been brought.

Lesbian and transgender people have fought successfully for more rights and visibility. Women in most parts of the world now enjoy greater automony and life choices than before – rights to property, to our children, to careers – that we now take for granted.

Patriarchy rebooted Yet fighting patriarchy can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. As male privilege is eroded in one sphere, it crops up in a new guise. In the West in particular, cultural sexism seems to be making a comeback. ‘For a while we thought everything was OK,’ says Chris Blanche from French feminist outfit La Barbe (see below), ‘but it turned out it wasn’t the case. We have gone back on many values.’

For one thing, the gender binary is back. The craze for unisex parenting in the 1970s has long gone. Multicoloured stripes have given way to rigid pink and blue, and we are seeing the triumph of a gendered, highly sexist toy market.

The trend took off in the 1980s. For girls, it’s femininity on steroids – they are sold glittering princess gear and cooking pots while boys get action toys and construction sets. Children get a clear message about what is appropriate for boys and girls to do, which forms expectations later in life. As young as three years old, children police the boundary and stigmatize those who cross the line.

This is not just a Western malaise. Nursery workers as far afield as El Salvador are consciously working to counteract the gender stereotyping that comes with imported toys.3

On hand to back up these divisions is what neuroscientist Gina R ibbon calls ‘neophrenology’, a rash of literature on ‘female brains’ or men’s innate ‘capacity to read maps’.

‘Despite irrefutable evidence that brains are elastic and change according to what’s going on around us,’ she reports, ‘scientists and

Profiles of groups sticking it to the Man

LA BARBE Don a false beard and walk into a space of power. This is the irony-laden technique of French direct action group La Barbe, or Beard, who gatecrash male-dominated events of the French establishment.

‘We hold up a mirror,’ explains Chris Blanche, an early member. ‘We walk in and congratulate the men and say – “this is beautiful, fantastic, nothing has changed since the 19th century! Keep it that way.”’

La Barbe began as a protest against the sexist bile levelled at Ségolène Royal when she ran for president in the 2007 elections, but soon branched out into all areas where women are under-represented.

‘We found that those who were the most respectable – leftwing, civil society groups, the arts – were also run by men. They would say, “Oh my god, how can you do this to us? We do good every day” or

“But you cannot count art!”’

This eye-catching and effective method spread from Paris to the rest of France and now has chapters as far afield as Mexico (where it is renamed Las Bigotonas – ‘the moustaches’ – and Australia.

Blanche advises all women to carry a false beard at all times, as ‘many situations call for it ’.

labarbelabarbe.org

PLAY UNLIMITED Thea Hughes was first motivated to declare war on gendered toys by her son’s love of pink. ‘I want him to feel free to make his own choices, not to have options shut down by gender stereotypes,’

14 ● N e w I n t e r n at i o n a liST ● july/au gust 2 014

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