SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

From glass ceiling to sticky floor

The Stalled Revolution: is equality for women an impossible dream?

By Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds

Published by Emerald Books, 2018, £26.99

Reviewed by Eleanor Donne

This book centres on Britain’s two biggest women’s movements of the 20th century: the struggle for votes for women a century ago and the Women’s Liberation Movement 50 years ago. The authors’ aim is not just to celebrate what the movements achieved, but to examine why progress on women’s rights stalled. They aim to "rehabilitate and reclaim feminism", to learn the lessons in order to build a new movement.

Eva Tutchell is an academic and adviser to public authorities on gender issues. She was on the first Women’s Liberation demonstration on 6 March 1971. John Edmonds’ feminist credentials, however, are far from clear. He was general secretary of the GMB union from the late 1980s to 2002, and TUC president in 1998. About a third of GMB members are women and the book jacket claims that Edmonds "increased the representation of women throughout the union". This did not apply to the top union roles which were all occupied by men during his time as general secretary.

Edmonds and other GMB leaders did little to address the fact that the union’s women members were disproportionately low paid. They failed to fight for proper funding from Tony Blair’s Labour government to implement equal pay under ‘single status’ agreements. This resulted in some women members winning a tribunal case against their own union (Allen v GMB 2003) – although by that time Edmonds had retired.

This is the second book they have co-written. The first was a response to the 2010 general election. Not out of anger at a Tory/Liberal coalition government cutting jobs, benefits and public services, affecting women in particular. The trigger for the book, Man-Made (2015), was watching TV coverage of the election and noting the lack of women candidates across all the political parties. Both books focus on the need to get more women into positions of power, regardless of their politics. The authors seem more interested in the glass ceiling at the top end of society than the ‘sticky floor’ of low pay and benefit cuts.

The Stalled Revolution alternates chapters about the suffrage movement of the early 20th century, relying on the biographies of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst, and the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the late 1960s, early 1970s. The authors interviewed leading WLM activists but we don’t get to hear their voices enough. It is not a straightforward account of an activist in the movement but, unfortunately, it is anything but an in-depth analysis of how and why ‘third wave feminism’ developed in the UK. The book does not place either movement in its economic and political context, and only addresses class in the most superficial way.

There are passing references to important struggles, such as the 1970-72 night cleaners’ campaign which included strike action by women working in London office blocks. They joined the Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite) and were supported by other trade unions, with lorry drivers refusing to cross their picket lines. There is also a reference to the Grunwick strike led by Jayaben Desai in 1976, and to the equal pay strike of women workers at Ford Dagenham in 1968. The latter, however, only gets a few lines in spite of the significant role it played in highlighting wage discrimination and exploding the myth that women workers were more compliant than men.

Tutchell and Edmonds do not acknowledge the wider labour movement’s role in fighting to defend rights for women. These included civil rights such as abortion, and the importance of gains like welfare and social housing in enabling women to exercise the new right to divorce, for example, after 1967. Socialist feminism was a significant ideology within the WLM and this informed the programme and campaigning methods adopted in the 1970s. The four original demands of the first WLM conference were equal pay, equal educational opportunities, 24-hour nurseries and abortion on demand.

The authors nevertheless found space to criticise ‘Marxists, Leninists and Maoists’ who "had their own distinct agendas" within the WLM. They state that "some far left groups used brutal terms to condemn women who did not share their views". This sweeping accusation is not backed up by any evidence of who said what, when and where. Socialists of course should not condone intimidation or rudeness at meetings, but putting forward a particular programme and arguing for it should be a democratic right.

One of the difficulties with the WLM which the authors acknowledge was that it was not a cohesive force but made up of small local groups. Often the aim was to raise individual consciousness about oppression and overcome personal obstacles rather than form part of a larger movement for change.

The book describes the monster demonstration for votes for women in Hyde Park in 1908, with between 250,000 and 500,000 participating, according to accounts at the time. By contrast, the 1971 Women’s Liberation demonstration had up to 4,000. However, the idea of ‘women’s lib’ reached far further than the active participants as women went out to work in increasing numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s. There, they were able to break out of the isolation in the home, experience solidarity in the workplace, and some measure of economic independence.

The Stalled Revolution calls for a new liberation campaign, although the authors state that a women’s movement should include all classes. They even refer to Theresa May’s assertion that she is a ‘convinced feminist’. Labour MP Harriet Harman’s name crops up a lot and she is clearly a figure both authors admire. While calling herself a feminist, however, as secretary of state for social security in 1997, Harman was responsible for abolishing the non-means-tested single parent benefit for those in work, and the one parent premium of income support (around £10/week at that time, overwhelmingly paid to women living in poverty).

I can only assume that the book was written before the huge women’s marches of January 2017 following Donald Trump’s inauguration – even though it was published in early 2018 – as it makes no reference to these. Or to the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Neither is there any reference to the seismic developments in and around the Labour Party, yet Jeremey Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. This seems to indicate a conscious lack of engagement with the current political situation and how this may develop.

In Man-Made, Tutchell and Edmonds asked: "What happened to the comfortable assumption that the ‘glass ceiling’ has been shattered and gender equality is within touching distance? It turns out to be an illusion". Marxists challenged these assumptions of ‘post-feminism’ in the early 2000s, and at least the authors admit they were wrong. Although there have been some significant advances in legal rights and attitudes since the 1970s, even the four demands of the WLM have not yet been met.

In spite of the claim in the book, we do not have the right to abortion on demand. Women in Britain still need two doctors’ signatures to agree the procedure, and women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to Britain to get a termination. Genuinely affordable childcare is an exception not the rule and recently published data show that the gender pay gap is still very much an issue.

The authors write: "The question at the heart of this book is whether the time has come for a new liberation campaign and a third leap forward". They suggest that the Fawcett Society, a liberal feminist group, should approach other "principal campaigning organisations" to form a new federation. They put forward objectives, such as a nationwide network of properly-funded women’s refuges and well-funded, flexible childcare free at the point of use. These we would fully support, of course.

They also argue that women need a "fundamental change in the way society is organised". Yes, we do! I’m not sure they know what they mean by this but socialists understand the need to take resources out of the hands of the rich and use them to benefit the majority – to fully fund social care and the health service, childcare and genuinely affordable housing. We need a real living wage, for all benefit cuts to be reversed, and for benefits that cover the actual costs of bringing up children. We should have access to free education at all stages of life.

A women’s movement can draw in women of all classes around particular issues, especially domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment, which can affect any woman. The Time’s Up movement reflects this. But to get rid of capitalism and its class-based society will take a determined, united movement of the working class drawing in much of the middle class too. The act of struggle will often raise women’s consciousness about their gender and racial oppression as well as class, and make them all the more determined to build a truly liberated, socialist society.

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