In these two pieces from the UK-based Guardian newspaper, Polly Toynbee and Kira Cochrane tell of the newspaper’s long-running women’s page, its history and they offer arguments as to why such feminist spaces are still needed. The posts following these articles are as interesting as the pieces themselves.
What do you think? Are feminist ‘spaces’ needed? Are there feminist spaces in your lives?
Why does the Guardian still need a women’s page? Because the feminist revolution is only half made
Wednesday July 18, 2007
How did the Guardian women’s page become so influential? It helped that as the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s got under way, Private Eye regularly sneered at the page, with male newspaper columnists writing biliously about hairy, dungaree-wearing, lentil-eating, man-hating Guardian wimmin. There were reams of articles in the tabloids and rightwing broadsheets back then about why men should now slam doors in women’s faces to prove that women couldn’t have it both ways – not chivalry AND equality. And that vitriolic backlash proved the making of the women’s pages.
The section raised all the difficult issues – battered wives, the menopause, women prisoners giving birth while chained down. It asked why girls were put in pink, what’s hard-wired and what’s not, why sex was often rubbish for women, why men were often rubbish but women had no means of escape. Why should women always do the housework and why shouldn’t they do anything a man could do? Back before the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the unions insisted on lower rates of pay for women doing the same job as men in the same factory. Back before the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, all kinds of jobs were forbidden to women.
It’s hard to recapture the shock and fury that feminism caused but, never forget, these were, and still are, revolutionary ideas. The very notion that women, that mothers, can be equal in everything reaches down into the heart of family life and questions everything. And there is no denying that feminism caused a soaring divorce rate and an explosion of single motherhood. Women walked away from bad men. Bad said: “If you want equality, then I can abandon my family responsibilities and pay no maintenance.” So it is still an unfinished revolution, where women’s attitudes changed fast, but men’s only slightly, and society has done too little to accommodate this great eruption. The economic system still demands a male wage to bring up a child – jobs aren’t flexible enough and women’s pay is too low for mothers alone to be breadwinners.
The Guardian women’s page had a huge influence in spreading revolutionary ideas. The secret was that it alerted one of the most powerful, but usually all too politically dormant forces in the land – the women’s magazines – to what was being written. The Guardian was the conduit for ideas from the US, from Rosie Boycott’s Spare Rib, Virago, the wages for housework campaign and some dottier ones too. Suddenly the editors of Woman’s Own and Woman took up these themes and popularised them for a mass audience. I doubt any revolutionary ideas were ever spread as far, as fast and as effectively as by those magazines, read by women under men’s noses. Glossy magazines became the underground press for women. The trouble was, men didn’t get it, didn’t read it and didn’t understand what was in the air. They were startled to find women growing discontented and demanding. Where were they getting these ideas from?
Sometimes we were startled too. There was the woman who wrote a card to Jill Tweedie, the greatest women’s page writer, sent from a remote caravan park: “I’ve done it! I’ve left my violent husband and taken the children and we’re living in a caravan. What should I do now?” Jill was appalled. What did she know? No one wanting advice would have taken Jill’s own life story as any kind of template. But her insights into her own life became the anvil on which she pounded out what she knew of how life was for women in general – and it turned out she knew a lot and was funny and wry about it too.
By the time I started writing a column for the women’s pages in 1977, the battle lines had been drawn years before, starting with Mary Stott. But the perennial question was asked then as now – why do you need a women’s page? Isn’t it a harem that confines and diminishes women, as if the rest of the paper was not really women’s domain? For journalists, it was a problem. I was a reporter on the Observer, covering strikes and industrial relations when, out of the blue, I was offered the column. I suspect nervous male editors and features editors kept trying to find women to edit and work on the pages who were not known for feminist writing.
Although it was a great honour, I’m ashamed to admit that, like many others, I hesitated before joining. Although I was always a feminist and never a feminism-denier, I worried I’d be branded a single-issue women’s columnist, a bit frivolous, no longer fit for the men’s newsroom. Would I ever get back to the “mainstream”? Lurking somewhere beneath was that old fear of being branded as a bra-burning harridan.
Well, I stayed for 11 years, some of the best years of my working life, and it changed my view of the world. All through those Tory years there were fierce battles to be fought.
I might be on the women’s page still if I hadn’t unexpectedly been offered a job as social affairs editor at the BBC. Would I ever have made the jump from Guardian women’s page to Guardian comment page without leaving first? The fact that I even ask this question shows that the word “women” still signifies what it always did – “other”, “second class”, “not serious”, “not one of the boys”. That – paradoxically – is exactly why we still need a women’s page. The revolution is only half made, and sometimes it seems to go backwards. Who else will keep banging the drum?
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Still so much to do
Kira Cochrane, 2006 – present
Wednesday July 18, 2007
It happened to Mary Stott fifty years ago, and it still happens to me now. That moment (usually, annoyingly, at parties) when someone asks – “what’s the point of a women’s page anyway?”
Even before the inquisitor lays out their case, even if I’m on my third martini, I can still guess what’s to come. The suggestion that a women’s page is intrinsically sexist (why no men’s page?); that a women’s page is patronising, ghettoising; that we are living in a post-feminist age of such blinding, cast-iron equality that a section dedicated to women is an anachronism.
Reading through fifty years of the pages, as I have over the past few months, women’s changing status has hit me harder than ever. In the late 1950s, well into the ‘swinging’ sixties, and on into the feminist heyday of the seventies, the constrictions of women’s lives seem, with hindsight, incredible.
Women unable to get a mortgage in their own name; banished from the table at the end of dinner parties; having no access to safe, legal abortion; being told that their career options were nursing, secretarial work or, at a push, teaching; being sacked, quite legally, if they became pregnant; being paid – again, quite legally – less than a man in the same job. Treated like children. Or worse.
Back when the pages started in 1957 there was still a clear split between the public sphere and the home, with women often confined to the latter. In those days the women’s pages had a clear purpose, being the only section that discussed women’s specific concerns. Now, of course, women have entered the public sphere in droves, and, at the same time, coverage of ‘women’s issues’ has found its way onto the news pages, the general features pages, even – just occasionally – the sports pages too.
Is there still a place, a need, for the women’s pages then? Yes (and I’m not saying that simply because I love my job and quite fancy keeping it).
However much women’s situation may have improved, the fact remains that we are still some distance from equality. There is still a 12.6% pay gap between men and women – rising to 40.2% when it comes to part-time work; only 30% of women get a full state pension, compared to 85% of men; rape conviction rates are at an all-time low of 5.6%, down from 33% in the late 1970s.
Equally, while ‘women’s stories’ do make the news pages, men still dominate – and they account for 80% of MPs, 89% of high court judges, and 97% of the Chief Executives of FTSE 100 companies. If the women’s pages – which now run on two days a week – were the only place to showcase ‘women’s’ stories the ghetto argument would be more than fair. In fact though what they now provide is simply a guaranteed space, a space that persists and provides at least some balance on those days when every single major news story pivots around a bloke.
Uniquely among women’s sections, our pages don’t centre around fashion, food or general family stories – we have other extremely good sections that deal with all of those. What they provide is a dedicated space for stories that solely affect women – some of them frivolous (frivolity being essential to anyone’s sense of liberation, I would guess) but many of them political, serious and campaigning.
While other sources are adamant that feminism is over, the women’s pages have recently covered all manner of activism – from the revival of the Reclaim the Night protests, to the rise of anti-pornography campaigns, to the creation of six new British feminist magazines in the last eighteen months.
While others talk about living in a post-feminist age, the women’s pages are still looking forward to a truly feminist age – one in which men and women are treated equally, no more, no less.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007