Feminism without socialism will not be for the many but the few - Shami Chakrabarti

Writing exclusively for the Red Robin, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti


As we celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, this month, I joined the many women (and men) reflecting on the progress in gender equality that has been achieved over the last 100 years. It was not an uplifting exercise. I don't want to call the cup half empty but the pace of its filling is certainly too slow. 100 years since restricted rights (the 1918 Representation of the People Act deliberately excluded working-class women from the vote) were hard won in the UK by feminists imprisoned and tortured by successive right-wing Governments, global gender injustice continues to impact health, wealth, education, representation, opportunity and security in the 21st century.

The raft of painful testimony from past victims of abuse, much under the hashtag “me too”, which have poured forth following the Harvey Weinstein revelations that rocked Hollywood last year, give some sense of the scale of the endemic and structural problem. This went well beyond the entertainment industry and even crossed the Atlantic from the infamous casting couch to the corridors of British political power. Across the globe, women learn, earn, influence and govern less and suffer more, whether from the petty but dehumanising indignities of casual objectification and discrimination, or from the emotional and physical violence that dulls and even snuffs out so many of their lives too soon.

And where there is poverty, be it in the first or developed, urban or rural world, poor girls and women face an additional and significant hurdle. Prevailing prejudice around menstruation and/or poverty and a lack of free or affordable feminine hygiene products can put girls and women in a position of physical incapacity, degradation and even danger every month.

It may be hard to believe, but nearly one in five respondents to a recent survey into the effects of period poverty in Scotland, conducted by grassroots group Women for Independence, said that they had had to go without period products because of a lack of funds. One in 10 said they had been forced to prioritise other essentials, such as food, over buying sanitary wear. Many women were resorting to using old clothes or newspapers as a substitutes. And as a direct result of this lack of available sanitary wear, many respondents described significant health impacts such as a urinary tract infection or thrush. Not to mention, their associated feelings of shame, isolation, self-consciousness and discomfort, many missing out on days of work and education, feeling they were unable to leave the home.

It is Scottish Labour’s, Monica Lennon, MSP that has been leading the charge to “make Scotland a world-leader in tackling period poverty”, with her members’ bill, currently in consultation stage, providing for a universal programme for sanitary product provision. Labour have pledged to end period poverty because Labour understands gender equality will not be achieved by civil and political rights alone. Gender injustice is a social and economic evil, which requires social and economic solutions.

So of course there should be more women at top tables of power but feminist should also care for those building, cleaning and serving at the table because feminism without socialism will not be for the many but the few. It wasn’t until 1928 that all women – rich and poor – achieved suffrage in the UK, I sincerely hope that we will find more economic and gender parity to celebrate at that centenary. Under a Labour government, I know we will.

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