Rosie Boycott is a long-standing journalist who founded feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1972 and went on to be the first female editor of the Independent. Holly and Rhiannon are co-founders of The Vagenda, a popular blog for twentysomething feminists. We asked Rosie, Holly and Rhiannon how their generation has shaped the debate around gender equality.
Can you be a Page 3 girl and a feminist?
Rosie: No, I don't believe you can be on Page 3 and be a feminist and I hate it when it's said that posing topless means you're an independent, free thinking girl. It's especially bad when this justification is made by women editors. Ask yourself: why do women show off their breasts? For men. Why do newspapers publish the pictures? To make men buy them. This is no different from photographing women draped over the bonnets of cars as an advertising tool, something that no one had a problem condemning forty years ago. Page Three girls continue the idea that women are mainly valued for their looks and their bodies, that women are fair game sexually for men and that - and here's where I think it is really sinister - that women, all women, really do delight in stripping off and being the objects of a man's lust. It's not a big step from there to believing that all women truly are 'gagging for it'.
Holly and Rhiannon: Page 3 is an awful, regressive beast from another era and it amazes us that it still exists. We wonder why women still feel the need to get their tits out for cash, but, that aside, it’s not really our job to dictate who is and isn’t a feminist. But are the Sun editors feminists? Certainly not. With the girls themselves, the question is more tricky, because there’s this illusion of choice, and that this choice is ‘empowering’. It isn’t. Can you pose topless and still believe men and women should have equal rights and treatment? Of course you can. But you also have to realise that what you’re doing involves some pretty dodgy power play that isn’t doing the rest of us many favours. At Vagenda, we firmly believe that nobody should stop you if you want to call yourself a feminist. A Page 3 girl may well be a feminist, but is the presentation of her in the media feminist? Does Page 3 have an agenda that promotes equality between the sexes? Probably not - and that's where the waters begin to get murky.
What has your generation of feminists achieved?
Rosie: A lot, in some respects. Forty years ago a woman needed the co-signature of her father or husband to get a mortgage. We couldn't rent a car on our own surety. There were very few women in their professions; there were no high court judges, no newspaper editors, no Law Lords. Girls trailed boys in education. They were poorly represented in the sciences. Abortions were hard to come by, girls were still bought up to be wives and mothers, not workers. Childcare was non-existent. Going out to dinner with another woman was regarded as weird, let along going into a pub. Gay women came from Mars. So all that has changed, but we still have much to do.
Holly and Rhiannon: If you’re talking in ‘waves’, then this generation of feminists has achieved a lot. Third wave feminism has kept the ball rolling, and built on the great work that was done in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. But if you’re talking about our generation, twentysomething women, then they certainly haven’t achieved as much as we’d like. There’s an assumption there that we don’t need feminism anymore. But you just need to look at the atrociously low rape conviction rates, the proliferation of one-sided pornography, and the right wing anti-abortion agenda to know that we do. We’re still not fully in charge of our ladybits and what we do with them.
The overwhelming response to the Vagenda, as well as the groups such as Femen, Hollaback! and the brilliant ladies at Camden School For Girls, shows that young women are thinking about these issues and want to act on them. Brilliantly, our generation contains the largest percentage of feminists that there have ever been. Most men from our generation believe as ardently in equality between the sexes as their female counterparts: to them, it's as intuitive as pairing cereal with milk. It’s a shame that 'feminist' has become a dirty word, but that mustn't let us forget that we live at a time where there are female presidential candidates and universities are inundated with intelligent women, who are being taught by female intellectuals. At this late stage, it would be tragic to depreciate back into objectification, and even worse to stick Playboy bunny tails on our bums and shake them to the beat of our own downfall.
Where is feminism heading in the future?
Rosie: At its best, feminism is about women helping women. It is about sisterhood and being there for each other. I love to see younger women forming strong networks to encourage and mentor each other. There are many things that still worry me, like the blatant sexualisation of society and the belief that liberation comes from sexual excess. Or the lack of universal childcare, which means that only well-off women are able to afford the kind of child care that brings peace of mind. Or our hyper body-consciousness, which means that girls as young as 10 believe that being beautiful is more important than being kind, and think plastic surgery is a serious option. It's a much tougher fight today. When we were founding Spare Rib forty years ago, the issues were so big and glaring that no-one could say we weren't on the side of the angels. Now, it's so easy for men, and many women, to say, 'Oh, haven't you got all you wanted?'
Holly and Rhiannon: We hope we will get to a stage where women aren’t ashamed to call themselves feminists. It’s ridiculous that we’re back there after previous generations went to the barricades. So there’s a lot of ground to be regained there. We’d like it to come into people’s front rooms and not to be relegated to the world of stereotype and presumptuous neglect. Feminism is just common sense! We’d also like to see lots more young women saying ‘I’m not putting up with this!’ and voicing that outrage with no sense of shame. Feminists can be shaven or unshaven, rocking a golden thong or a black burkini, professors and bankers and cleaners and doctors and full-time mothers. The feminist mecca we’re travelling to is so obvious and so within reach - it's just that some of the signs along the way are obscured by PVC tit tape.
Who's your favourite woman in the public eye at the moment and why?
Rosie: Right now, I'm very enthusiastic about Hilary Clinton: she's emerged from her failed bid for presidency with great guts. The loss of Bill is clearly wonderful for her. She works hard for women all over the world.
Holly and Rhiannon: Our main heroines are the women journalists and feminists who are keeping 'women's issues' in the public eye by writing about them brilliantly and often. We love some of the third wave feminist texts, by writers such as Ariel Levy and Natasha Walter. They have a huge amount of influence, not just on us, but on women of our generation. They provide a welcome antidote to the mindless women's magazine articles that talk about sending your butt to bootcamp. Long may they continue talking and writing about the things that really matter to us.