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Culture | Feminism en. There are still, of course, the most horrific and widespread incidences of this all over the world: honour killings, rape, genital mutilation. But there is also no let-up in the daily – sometimes violent, sometimes milder, sometimes subtly undermining attacks on women. As Greer herself put it in her seminal work The Female Eunuch: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”

Over her 60 years on the road, Steinem has encountered plenty of male hatred, usually in the form of dismissiveness or ridicule. When she started out as a freelance reporter, for example, she was described as pretty. As she became more vocal she was beautiful. And as the women’s movement took hold, she was assumed to be a lesbian. Her response to such taunts? “Thank you.”

As an enthusiastic campaigner for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1960s, Steinem was shocked that when they were expecting a visit from the man himself, the women were confined to a room upstairs. The explanation was that he was recently divorced so couldn’t be exposed to temptation.

books discussed

My Life on the Road

(Oneworld) Gloria Steinem

Lean In: Women, Work and the

Will to Lead (WH Allen)

Sheryl Sandberg

Lean Out (Repeater)

Dawn Foster

The Female Eunuch (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

Germaine Greer Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (Bloomsbury)

Laurie Penny

The Woman’s Hour: 50 Years of Women in Britain (BC Books)

Jenni Murray es. She was startled to be inundated with over 50,000 testimonies – now immortalised in her book of the same name. The respondents range from young girls to businesswomen, politicians to mothers and grandmothers.

Indeed, the internet is dangerous territory, agrees Laurie Penny in her spirited feminist polemic Unspeakable Things. And she should know. “There’s nothing wrong with [her that] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garroting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn’t sort out,” declared one of her many critics.

Vitriolic trolling of prominent women, vicious abuse, rape and murder threats are now commonplace online. But, argues Penny, while such vicious sexism is indeed rampant on the Internet, it’s far from a new phenomenon. “The Internet is not the reason for the supposed tide of filth and commercial sexuality we’re drowning in . . . One has to ask when there has ever truly been a time when abuse and violence did not take place, when women were not brutalised, when children were not taken advantage of.”

Blogs like Everyday Sexism, UK Feminista, The F Word and The Va

In the early 1970s female students at Harvard Law School told her of the many ways they were marginalised. An eminent professor of administrative law, who had never heard of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, opposed the hiring of female faculty because of the danger of “sexual vibrations”. Professors would joke about the “reasonable man” test by saying there was no such thing as a reasonable woman, and would describe rape as “a very small assault”. Steinem details countless sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton – for wearing a blouse that revealed a sliver of cleavage; for wearing trousers because she must be hiding ugly legs – unlike Sarah Palin who must be a better politician because she wore skirts.

The derision may take different forms these days, but it’s ever present. In the UK a new generation of young women is beginning to wake up to the fact that, despite the many freedoms they enjoy, this kind of experience is routine. That’s what Laura Bates discovered when she started her blog Everyday Sexism, collating women’s daily experiencgenda, Penny suggests, signal the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny, as do their accompanying books. “Women and girls and their allies are coming together to expose gender violence online and combat structural sexism and racism offline.”

It may be heart-warming for us old hands to see the next wave of feminists rising up in anger, and a matter of pride that they take for granted so many of the freedoms achieved since we took to the streets 40 years ago. So if we feel despair at the slow progress of some aspects of change, let’s also follow Steinem’s example and be optimistic about all that has been done and all that is still changing.

In her 1996 book The Woman’s Hour: 50 Years of Women in Britain, Jenni Murray pays tribute to the legacy of Steinem and her fellow travellers on the road to liberation. “They paved the way and raised our expectations as women, in all aspects of our lives from education to jobs to relationships, style, looks, family and even growing older. They led a revolution which has changed the laws and the culture by which we now live.” l

New Humanist | Spring 2016

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