From the Suffragettes to feminism’s generation war: women’s rights today

Saturday 3 November, 15:15—16:30, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EWUK satellites

This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Edinburgh – buy tickets here.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally gave women the right to vote, although it was limited to women over 30 and included a property qualification; universal suffrage only came in 1928. Nonetheless, after years of campaigning by women, most notably the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – disparagingly called the ‘Suffragettes’ at the time by opponents – a major breakthrough had been achieved. Since then, many would argue – including some high-profile veteran feminists – that women have achieved equality or more in almost every field, from education and politics to the workplace. For example, in August 2017, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that women were a third more likely to go to university than men. Equal pay for equal work and a ban on sex discrimination at work have been enshrined in law for decades. In politics, women currently lead the governments in Westminster and Holyrood.

Yet feminism is as high-profile as ever. There were loud protests over the ‘gender pay-gap’ earlier this year, for example. Despite the fact that equal pay has been the law since 1970, compulsory reporting of gender and pay by larger companies in April 2018 revealed that 78 per cent of firms pay men more than women, in 82 per cent of companies women were under-represented in the highest-paying jobs and no sector pays women more than men. The fallout from the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #MeToo movement suggests too many women continue to face sexual assault and harassment.

But older feminists have been dismissive of these concerns, arguing that women have never had it so good and that #MeToo has turned into a divisive witch-hunt that wrongly accuses some men and paints women as victims in need of protection rather than strong and independent. In turn, this has provoked a backlash, with accusations that older feminists are out of touch.

Is there still a need for feminism today? What should feminists be arguing for today? Do older feminists have a point when criticising modern feminists or have the movement’s veterans missed important changes in society?