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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
The death of feminism?
By Madeleine Bunting
Writer and columnist for the Guardian newspaper

Women have achieved increased economic power but at what cost?
If we're heading for a woman's world, as this week's BBC Two drama documentary series IF suggests, what need will we have for feminism?

Madeleine Bunting explains why feminism is at a critical turning point in its history and how it needs to find its voice again in society.

Within the next decade, women will comfortably overtake men to form the majority of the labour force.

Inevitably, the point when the balance tips in women's favour will become an occasion for taking stock: is this a woman's world? What more need do we have of feminism?

The answer to the first will be, at best, 'sort of'; the answer to the second - 'plenty'.

Slow progress

Along with women's growing dominance in the labour market - they are due to get the bulk of the new jobs created in the next decade - will come increased economic power and independence.

Increasingly, I begin to think that the issue which will, like a tin-opener, finally crack this open - is the falling birth rate
But it will still be considerably less than men enjoy; progress on the pay gap in the UK is agonisingly slow and in some years it even goes into reverse.

What is most worrying is that the pay gap for those in part-time work is twice the full-time rate, at over 40%, and the bulk of women work part-time.

Employers have taken advantage of women's need for flexible work to juggle around their caring commitments, and offer them flexibility rather than decent pay.

Ticking timebomb

Women's lower pay leads to lower pensions, and it is the feminisation of old age poverty which most worries policy analysts: it's a ticking timebomb.

If... women ruled the world
Wednesday, 31 March 2004, at 2100 BST on BBC Two
In 20 years, millions of women who worked hard to raise their children and care for their families, but whose relationships broke down will find themselves close to penury.

What we are still struggling with is a division of labour in which men worked in the economy and got paid for it, while women worked (just as hard or even harder) in the home and didn't get paid for it.

Women's work in the home is not only 'never done' but it's never recognised either; as recently as last June the Women's Equality Unit commented that women who stayed at home to look after their children were not contributing to the economy.


Women may now be working in jobs and getting paid for them but they struggle as also-rans in the labour market with little recognition of their double shift of work and care in the home.

Feminism is at a critical turning point in its history
The punishingly long hours required in most high level jobs deter anyone with caring responsibilities. It amounts to systematic discrimination throughout the labour market against carers, the bulk of whom are women.

Increasingly, I begin to think that the issue which will, like a tin-opener, finally crack this open - is the falling birth rate.

All over Europe, women are choosing not to have children and fertility is well below replacement rate.

Instead of regarding a woman's decision to have a child as a private hobby, increasingly in the coming decades, governments will want to promote and assist women to have more children.

Providing we have the right women in positions of power, we have an extraordinary opportunity to finally give recognition to women's vitally important work of raising children and running a family.

Fair deal

It is in demanding a fair deal for women's contribution to society - in work and in home, both are equally crucial - that feminism needs to find its voice again.

Its death has been over-reported; it has never been a mass movement and it has always struggled to articulate its agenda for equality in the face of the self-evident close inter-dependence of men and women.

But feminism is at a critical turning point in its history. It is too narrow to limit its remit to the ambitions of successful women climbing the greasy pole. It should also be about a fair recognition of women's hard labour in producing the next generation.

Madeleine Bunting's book on the issue: Willing Slaves - How Britain's Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, is published on 21 June 2004 by HarperCollins.

Madeleine Bunting took part in the BBC television programme If... women ruled the world.

The programme was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Wednesday, 31 March, 2004 at 2100 BST.

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