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Culture | Feminism

Gloria Steinem, photographed by Annie Leibovitz as the most basic form of liberation. “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy,” she writes. “It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”

So it’s not surprising that, like so many of us who came of age during that second wave of women’s liberation, Steinem is infuriated by lazy media assumptions that feminism is a middle-class movement of privileged women.

This is why the film Suffragette – written, directed, produced by women with a heavily female crew – goes to great lengths to highlight the participation and sacrifices of working-class women. Maud Watts, the central character played by Carey Mulligan, works in a laundry where she and her fellow-workers endure grinding conditions and daily harassment. The film graphically illustrates what she, like so many, had to face when she joined The Cause: loss of job, of husband, of child; the disgusted sneering of those around her; imprisonment, starvation, the indignity and pain of force-feeding.

Yet that same accusation, of feminism as a movement of the privileged, has arisen once again with the arrival of the latest attempt to put women’s issues at the forefront of the political agenda. The Women’s Equality Party, founded last year by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer, is planning to field candidates in the next election with an uncompromising manifesto: Equal representation; Equal pay and opportunity; Equal parenting and caregiving; Equal media treatment; End violence against women.

No sooner had its intentions been announced than the ridicule began. “I’d go as far as to suggest that ‘feminist political party’ is actually a misnomer,” wrote the journalist Abi Wilkinson in the International Business Times. “The Women’s Equality Party is more accurately described as a middle-class ladies’ campaign group.”

Such a dismissal may be unfair. But Wilkinson also suggests, with rather more reason, that what is missing

New Humanist | Spring 2016

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