Last week, in despatches from a misogynist land, we learned that a judge sympathised with a rapist because his victim made the mistake of sleeping while female. In Hull crown court, Judge Michael Mettyear told the defendant, who had raped a woman passed out in his home: “It’s sad to see a man of generally good character in the dock for such a serious offence … This was a case where you just lost control of normal restraint.”
Meanwhile, a young woman who performed oral sex on 24 men as part of a drinking competition in Magaluf was smeared across the tabloids and branded “vermin” by Twitter users, while the 24 men emerged with their dignity and privacy intact. Stories such as these are commonplace, and it’s little wonder feminists are often exasperated. Little wonder that we often think, as Germaine Greer put it in the documentary Blurred Lines, that men are “even less tolerant of women” than they were when The Female Eunuch was written.
But if it is permissible to disagree with Greer, a feminist foremother, I would like to argue the opposite. In OECD countries, I not only think things are dramatically improving for women, but that now is the best era to be female in modern times. And this improvement is single-handedly a result of the tireless campaigning of feminists.
Let me take one example of misogyny to elaborate: violence against women. In the summer of 2012, a group of high school boys in the US town of Steubenville, Ohio, raped a classmate. The case sparked international outrage as a result of the apparently lax way in which Steubenville authorities responded, which included accusations of attempts to cover up the crime. Also under fire was the news network CNN, which seemed more concerned with handwringing over the fate of the rapists instead of condemning the crime itself.
Yet in March this year, a similar case emerged in Georgia in which a group of boys were accused of raping a classmate. This time the authorities took the incident seriously. They arrested three boys and banned them from attending their school’s graduation, and a local newspaper columnist wrote a piece decrying the “rape mentality” that allegedly motivated them to commit the crime.
Of course, the major issue is that these types of crimes occurred at all, but such a major evolution in the discourse surrounding them shouldn’t be underestimated. I don’t think that shift would have taken place without feminists criticising the way in which social institutions responded to Steubenville.
Another example: this year, the University of Cambridge has been debating whether to hold compulsory consent classes for its students. One student interviewed by the Guardian responded by asking: “Are things really that bad?” I’d like to turn that statement around – look how much progress we’re making.
When I was at university 10 years ago, sexual assault was so commonplace nobody thought to question it, myself included. Stories of women having their drinks spiked or being taken advantage of when they were drunk, having an unwanted hand reach up their skirts, were run of the mill. It never even occurred to me that I could object to these acts and I considered myself a feminist.
Classes on sexual consent are not a sign of things getting worse; they are a symptom of the massive – and relatively recent – attitudinal shift around sexual violence against women, which has been brought about by feminists speaking out and opposing the status quo. The fact that sexual consent classes are necessary is a sign that women and men are not equal by any stretch of the imagination, but they also reflect the fact that feminists are changing people’s minds.
It’s important to remember that my grandmother was born in an era in which the putative feminist debate was whether women should have the vote. My mother was born in an era in which abortion was illegal. I was born in an era in which it was legal for a man to rape his wife. If we keep fighting, imagine the era our daughters will be born into, and their daughters after them.
The next step for feminists must be to consolidate the gains already made, either by campaigning for new legislation and policy, or strengthening those already in place – around the pay gap, sexual violence, representation, and so on.
We should also be attempting to create structures within our movement to ensure feminists of the future have something permanent to slot into. This is already happening with the likes of the UK Feminista Summer School, Everyday Sexism and Black Feminists – and these initiatives must be supported and resourced. Feminists must continue to remember that our movement’s power is in its diversity – ensuring that black, disabled, LGBT and working-class women are front and centre, and do not simply exist as add-ons to a white middle-class core.
It is through this diversity that we will be best equipped to provide international solidarity to women around the world, whatever shape their feminist battles are taking.
There will be continual reminders of the necessity of feminism in the weeks, months and years to come, and the scale of the struggle for total equality must not be underestimated. I agree with Kirsty Wark’s suggestion that the internet has given rise to a particularly pernicious brand of misogyny (although I tend to see that as a fearful reaction to the growing power of feminism). It’s a long, bumpy road ahead for fourth wave feminists. But every now and then we should remember we’re on a journey; look back and see how far we’ve come.