This year’s Feminism in London Conference took place on the 25th of October at The Institute of Education, University of London. With over a thousand attendees, the conference provided a rich discussion of a broad range of issues that pertain to feminism and the lives of women.

From pornography to anti-war women’s movements, a multitude issues were put on the table. Gail Dines, an anti-pornography activist and academic at Weelock College, discussed the importance of re-adopting structural feminism, highlighting the dangers of an individualistic concept of feminism, and the need for mass movements to combat the structural, institutional obstacles that facilitate discrimination against women. The conference also featured the European premiere of Dines’s documentary Pornland: How the Porn Business has Hijacked Our Sexuality, which focuses on the cruel and violent forms modern hardcore pornography has taken, and how this affects the behaviour of boys and men who have instant access to the content online.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization that will celebrate its centenary in 2015, works to present a feminist interpretation of conflict. Supporting negotiated settlements in place of military interventions, and working with grassroots women organizations across the world, they aim to integrate the views of those women on the grounds of conflict into their policy suggestions. Sheila Triggs, Membership Secretary says: ‘We’re aware that only by putting forward a feminist analysis in situations of conflict can you bring about lasting peace. Only by tackling patriarchy and the militarist establishment are you able to undermine the situation that exists now’.

Many argue that through voting rights and law, the struggle of women has essentially ended. This perspective often leads to ignorance on the social inequalities, derived from and normalized by patriarchal ideology, in which women are trapped. The workshops raised essential points on the multitude of ways in which this mechanism works in different areas of society. Three prominent examples were mental health, the gendered nature of labour markets, and political representation.

Gender in Mental Health

Our unique experiences, both biological and social, as women, necessitate a unique discussion of our mental health. In addition to our unique experiences of birth and motherhood, we face unique societal expectations, associated with traditional gender roles. Traditionally, women are expected to achieve perfection in wifehood and motherhood. However, following the entry of women into the workforce and their rise up the occupational ladder, the role of ‘career woman’ has been added to the roles expected of them. Through Western media obsession, another dimension of perfection to be achieved by women has been constructed, despite its conflict with traditional expectations of womanhood.

The clash of identities and expectations has left women vulnerable, and damaged their mental health, leaving them more prone to mental illness. In the UK, 40 per cent of women are more likely to report on mental health conditions, and 60 per cent more likely to report anxiety, while 75 per cent of women reported a form of depression.

Furthermore, role-based gender expectations have also led to violence against women. Today, the majority of victims of domestic violence are pregnant women, facing the issue of mother-blaming that relies on artificial notions of the ‘perfect mother’ and the contradictions that come with it.

Speakers highlighted a need of investment in services specializing in women’s health. A need of serious improvement in the quality of services was also stressed, highlighting that cues given by victimized women were not understood by doctors or helpers.

The Gendered Economy

The Istanbul Feminist Collective (Turkish: İstanbul Feminist Kolektif) gave a detailed account of how women are economically oppressed through gender expectations. Through gender roles, sex segregation has become the norm of the Turkish labour market; a clear categorization of ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’ jobs is evident, leading to a gendered occupational distribution and sector squeeze where women heavily occupy the service sector while being practically excluded from other sectors. Women receive lower wages, promotions favour men.

A further concern is the ‘breadwinner male model’ that underlies the Turkish occupational distribution. While men only spend 51 minutes on housework, women spend an average of 5 hours and 17 minutes daily. This unequal home labour division has often been ignored by policymakers on the basis of a superficial notion of female-male equality.

With the Islamist government’s push for social conservatism strictly positioning women at home, new plans to integrate women into the economy through part-time work have been announced. It is evident that this is the government’s way of appearing to reconcile work and family, while trapping women into the house and their role as mothers. It may be argued that women may well choose to continue full-time work following maternity leave. However, the serious lack of childcare available, alongside the gendered division of house labour, is rendering working mothers choiceless and forcing them into part-time jobs. Part-time work is pushing women into flexible, low pay jobs that offer little in terms of stability or future pensions.

Undoubtedly, these observations are not specific to Turkey and valid across different cultures, political and economic structures across the world. If we are to strive towards economic equality, we need to stop excluding housework from the economic realm, and start seeing women who provide it as one of many types of workers, within a rights-based approach.

Gender in Representation: The Run Up to the 2015 General Elections

The fact that women have been given the right to vote and hold office is often used as the typical counterargument to our strive for equality. The 50:50 Parliament, a cross-party campaign, is fighting for gender equality in the House of Commons. Through their petition, the group is requesting a parliamentary debate on how gender equality can be achieved. While 51 per cent of the UK population consists of women, 77 per cent of MPs are men.

We often debate how unequal representation is a political, if not constitutional issue. However, the 50:50 Parliament furthers this point: Unequal representation is a human rights issue. Scottish demands for the true representation of 5 million people sparked a referendum that could well have resulted in the secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom. As long as women are not truly represented, we are silencing a population of 32 million; nearly 5.5 times greater than the population of Scotland! Therefore, the campaign believes that the issue should integrate into the general issue of rewriting the British constitution, which has come to the forefront since the referendum.

As stated by Finn Mackay, an academic at the University of the West of England, and the founder of the London Feminist Network, in her closing speech, institutions grow from attitudes. Thus, we must not forget that unequal political representation, as long as it persists, is an embracement of a patriarchal attitude that grants men control of a society consisting of both men and women. Frances Scott, an activist for the 50:50 Campaign, highlights that ‘if 50:50 is good enough for Sweden, it’s good enough for the UK’, adding that ‘there is a lot more gender equality in Scandinavia and this has a fantastic impact on their work-life balance’.

In relation to the issue of conflict, Triggs adds WILPF’s perspective, that ‘if more women were in the decision making process, it would give a broader view of issues’. Rejecting an essentialist position of women as inherent peacemakers, she stressed that women’s role would have more to do with understanding, as ‘it’s our sons and daughters that are being killed’.

The Need to Engage Men

Looking at the fact that an overwhelming majority of the conference’s participants were women, the issue of integrating men into feminism becomes an issue that must be prioritized urgently. The White Ribbon Campaign, a group that works to engage men in challenging violence against women by offering authorities policies to prevent male violence at its source, held a pro-feminist men’s workshop.

Chris Green, Executive Director of the White Ribbon Campaign, says that the main issue is to get men engaged at all. ‘We have to regard men as not all men, but as there are a hundred different sorts of men. We would need different messages for different sorts of men. That’s the most important message to put across’. Highlighting the importance of grassroots participation and peer groups, Green added that ‘the most important thing is that men talk to other men. It’s men talking to their friends, their colleagues, their children, and their relatives about these issues. Once you start talking about it, it starts to open up, and people decide that they want to challenge violence against women and take the White Ribbon pledge to never commit, excuse, or remain silent about violence against women’.

Next year’s conference will take place on the 24th and 25th of October, 2015.