Women in action: (from left to right) Monica Ali, Annie Lennox, Beverley Knight, VV Brown, Jane Shepherdson and Katharine Whitehorn. Photographs: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Feminism: What does the F-word mean today?

When the Observer asked Annie Lennox to chair a discussion for Women’s Day, the singer and social activist gathered five other high-flying women to find out what equality means to them – and how feminism can galvanise the next generation

Annie Lennox Our challenge has to be: how do you create change? We have inherited a tremendous amount from our fore-sisters to have the right to equality, to education and access to reproductive healthcare. Unfortunately our consumeristic, celebrity-fixated culture has glossed over all those things so that we who are so resourced don’t use our resources as we should. In Britain, we take what we have for granted, yet if you go to developing-world countries the disparity between men and women is enormous, and values and practices can go back to medieval times.

Beverley Knight, singer It’s interesting that in the countries where women have the least power, the least equality, International Women’s Day is much more treasured. Here in Britain, with our excess of everything, the very things that are so precious that the Emmeline Pankhursts gave their spirit and their lives to, we take for granted. We don’t think about the struggle that other women have across the world.

VV Brown, singer and model I’m worried for young women, how everything is about how can I be famous, how can I make money quickly? We need to make sure that our role models are not just reality TV contestants, but doctors, judges, intellectuals.

AL There is this misconception that fame and celebrity is something to be had as a goal in itself and I’m outraged by the wastefulness of the movement of feminism, when we’re just sitting on the couches, watching reality TV while our daughters are being brainwashed.

Jane Shepherdson, Whistles chief executive The majority of women in this country work in the caring professions, such as nursing, teaching, etc, and they’re some of the worst-paid jobs, and a lot of those people will lose their jobs because of the coalition’s cuts. Capitalism values making money above everything else. One would imagine that nurturing the next generation would be something we’d value highly. And that’s something women do; whether it’s because we’re predisposed to it or not, women do do this.

BK I looked to my mum for everything, down to the fact that she wore glasses so I wanted to wear glasses… As I got older it was her strength of character I wanted to emulate. What would make someone of 16 years of age get on a plane from Montego Bay to Britain and be determined to make a new life for children she hadn’t even had yet? Her strength, ambition, the grace that was needed to deal with people who were hostile to her being in the country. I look at her and I still think, “Wow.”

Jane Shepherdson. JS My mother was a biochemist, my father a mathematician, and there was no question that one partner in the marriage wasn’t as equal as the other. I came home from school and my mother was at work and if people said it was a shame I had to come home and there was no one there I thought, why? Of course my mother should work. I think that has had a huge bearing on my life.

Katharine Whitehorn, journalist And it isn’t just that you say, “I want to be like her.” My role models were actually men. It never occurred to my father to give me a worse education than my brothers, which was a rarity in those days; and George Seddon, who I worked with when he was women’s editor of the Observer, changed things completely by making newspapers carry pieces that women were interested in.

Monica Ali, author There was a woman prime minister when I was at secondary school, the sex discrimination act had been passed already, and when I went to college women’s rights was still a politicised issue. Given all that, why have we still such a long way to go in terms of pay, boardroom inequality, lack of women MPs, figures of domestic violence, percentage of housework and childcare done by women… Part of the answer is the tendency to blame biology. There’s a tendency to shrug and say women have children so there’s a career gap, instead of thinking well, in what ways can we make sure that doesn’t disadvantage women?

JS We kind of go, oh great, there’s two women in the cabinet. That’s shocking. We are half the population, we’re not a minority, and we’re not represented in the way we should be.

MA Feminism has fallen off the agenda – 20 years ago at college it was in our discourse.

KW You forget how recent some of the victories are. We’re taught in school that we have a right to be tried by a jury of our peers, and no woman had that until 1919 as there were no women on juries before that.

Monica Ali. MA I have a daughter who’s 10 and we walked past a billboard the other day advertising a TV programme. There was a row of men in suits and a woman in a thong. My daughter said, “Why is it like that? It’s to sell it, isn’t it?” She knows that already. I said, “Yes, it’s a shame a young woman would want to be portrayed in that way,” and she said, “But it’s her choice, isn’t it? Nobody made her do that.” So how do you explain the Gramscian concept of hegemony to a 10 year old? If the culture is so all pervasive that you can’t think outside of it, how are you making genuine choices?

AL This incredible consumeristic culture comes in waves in the playground, you try and resist and the trouble is you end up feeling like you are the enemy. It’s everywhere, the advertising is ubiquitous.

MA And it’s dressed up in the language of empowerment of women! Proclaiming our sexuality and the freedom of the individual. So if you’re seen to be against that then there’s something wrong with you.

Beverley Knight. BK Annie, VV and I come from a music industry where if you dare to stick your head above the parapet and say actually I don’t really want to be defined as a musician in terms of the size of my breasts, instantly marketing managers will put you in the box marked as “trouble”. “She’s going to be difficult.”

JS Oversensitive, irrational, all those labels… I’ve come up through an industry with men who are quite bullying, alpha-male characters. To succeed in any business, women have to be unafraid of confrontation. But a lot of women would rather avoid it and that tends to be a reason they don’t succeed as they think: “You know what, it’s not really worth the trouble, I’ll just do this instead.”

MA I felt great strides had been made in the literary world. After all, we all know women write. But I saw this letter in Ms magazine, written to the New Yorker. It said: “I was already alarmed when I flipped through the 2010 December double issue that three out of the 150 pages were penned by women. Again every critic is a man and 22 out of the 23 illustrators for that issue are men.” An analysis of literary journals by Vidaweb, which counts the number of authors’ reviews in 2010, shows the average is 75% male contributions to 25% female. Women authors are not getting taken as seriously as men. It would be easy in the world I inhabit to say, there’s JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel, look at the plaudits they get, there’s no problem is there.

AL I never thought I was going to have to struggle with issues of equality. It’s not people trying to put you down, it’s more about mediocrity. When they’re in an organisation, people have a small vision and a blinkered idea about what it means to be an artist, or successful, and they’re looking for a cookie-cutter success. When I started wearing a man’s suit, I understood what I was saying – but instead people questioned my sexual orientation. The issue got reduced to one of whether I was gay. And I’m not.

BK Certainly in music, the way people are perceived to be successful or doing well is how many “units” – not even albums – have you sold? And how can we sell this product? She’s a woman: fastest way to do it S-E-X. If she doesn’t have the formulaic, garden-variety look we’re after she’s going to be difficult. And you get women who embrace that, take that skewed image of what it is to be successful, basing it on looks, and regarding themselves as being empowered. When the Spice Girls talked about girl power, I thought, what power’s that then? What are you talking about? It started the whole marketing-is-god downfall.

VV Brown. VVB Perceptions need to be shifted back to there being substance in things. And that comes back to education. Encouraging girls to do something that means something to them – I want to be a lawyer because I want to help someone, I want to be a musician because I love the art, I want to be a better woman because it means something to me. My mum runs a school where there are just as many female mathematicians as male ones, as many women scientists as men. Why aren’t there any female producers, music engineers?

AL There are very many other women who would identify a different type of challenge. We need to look at equality for all, not only, for example, for the 14% rise we’d like to see in salaries to close the pay gap in the UK. I had an opportunity to see the situation in South Africa, and it changed my perspective so radically once I’d understood that I am living in a bubble and the majority of women around the world do not have the access to things I have taken for granted.

Katharine Whitehorn. KW And it isn’t just the inequality of this country with the rest of the world, it’s the inequality within this country. We harp on about that fact that there aren’t enough women in boardrooms, but for educated women in Britain we’re in incredibly good shape compared to 50 years ago. And yet there are thousands of genital mutilations done in this country every year.

AL In South Africa it’s a tidal wave of HIV. I was in the offices of the Rolling Stone magazine at Christmas with lots of intelligent, informed writers and I asked them to put their hand up if they knew that one in three people in that country were carrying the HIV virus. No one put their hands up. You have thousands of people dying, millions of orphans and they don’t know. It’s incredible to me, that wake-up call I had, going into people’s houses where women were dying because they couldn’t get access to life-saving medication. How do you galvanise this sense of injustice?

MA There’s a perception that as countries develop economically issues of gender and inequality will automatically get better, whereas the whole thing needs to be stood on its head so that gender inequality is at the very centre of it all. A lot of studies show that if you focus on women’s rights that in itself is an engine for development. Female literacy rates strongly correlate with fertility rates, so if you educate women you will have fewer and healthier children. If you invest in women, the money they make will then be more likely to be invested in their families and local communities. Gender isn’t something to be dragged along behind.

BK To illustrate your point, when I went to Salvador to see what certain charity groups were doing to combat HIV, who was at the absolute heart of every single aspect of the fight? Women. It was the women who were educating other women, showing them pictures of different STIs and saying this is what can happen if you don’t insist your husbands protect themselves. I went on a march through the streets with women protesting about murders that had happened, people killed because they had HIV. These women who were seemingly without a voice were getting together, marching through the streets singing. I came home a different person. I thought, how apathetic have I been my whole life? These women are way more empowered than me.

AL For me the anomaly is that the western countries are so resourced. I can identify with a woman losing a child. This happened to me, I lost a baby. But I’m living in a place where I can get medical treatment. A woman in Rwanda or Uganda or Bangladesh will deliver a baby on the floor and probably it won’t survive and there’s a good chance the mother won’t either. Being conscious of this vast disparity between our experiences, I’m appalled the word feminism has been denigrated to a place of almost ridicule and I very passionately believe the word needs to be revalued and reintroduced with power and understanding that this is a global picture. It isn’t about us and them.

MA Are you saying that despite the huge advances here we’re in danger of forgetting, or not relating to, instances elsewhere?

AL Not in danger of… we do. We’re not even aware because it’s something you can’t begin to imagine. It doesn’t happen in your street.

MA So we need to get feminism back on the agenda in this country and one of the results of doing so will be that we can relate back to the people and their struggle elsewhere.

Annie Lennox. AL Katharine mentioned genital mutilation. What about the young girl who is taken as a child bride, becomes pregnant, delivers a baby, everything is wrecked and she is incontinent, and she is the victim, she is the one displaced outside the village who no one will come near. Or the young girl in Bangladesh who is raped and then lashed to death? These are the injustices. How can I hear this and not do something about it?

BK But when you speak up about it you’re the one who is labelled as combative, aggressive, because feminism is seen as some kind of putting on of a man’s angry cloak. You’re either laughed at or you’re some woman with big bovver boots and a shaved head trying to be like a guy. That’s the response you get. Feminism is neither of those two things. It’s about women caring about other women, giving a voice to those who have no other voice.

Join Equal’s Big Inequality Debate at weareequals.org. Annie Lennox and VV Brown will be appearing at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 March as part of the Women of the World Festival, in association with Equals

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