Although it is widely believed feminism has achieved its aims and is no longer required, in her first book Kat Banyard passionately argues that “the equality that so many people see existing between women and men is an illusion.”
A former Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society, the leading organisation working for women’s rights in the UK, Banyard reasons that a strong, mainstream feminist movement is needed more than ever. It is time “to recognise feminism for what it is: One of the most vital social justice movements of our age”, she writes.
Built around over 100 original interviews with individual women and girls, the book makes excellent use of numerous sociological studies, mainstream media reports and the writings of other contemporary feminist thinkers such as Ariel Levy, Natasha Walter and Naomi Wolf.
There are chapters on discrimination in the workplace, domestic abuse and other forms of gendered interpersonal violence, reproductive rights and the shocking-levels of sexual bullying girls face in school. Most impressive is her incisive analysis of the damaging beauty ideal, especially her critique of Dove’s ongoing ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, which is often held up as a model of socially-conscious, women-friendly advertising. In contrast, Banyard argues “initiatives that simply seek to reform or diversify the range of beauty ideals on offer to women… fail to challenge the fundamental notion that a women’s worth could and should be located in her appearance.” Admirers of Gok Wan should also take note.
A supporter of the ‘Nordic’ approach to prostitution – criminalising the buying, rather than the selling, of sex – Banyard highlights how abuse, homelessness, poverty, marginalisation and family breakdown are the path in to prostitution for the majority of women. She is critical of the International Union of Sex Workers, but also quotes a lap-dancer as saying “we have no rights to speak of. We can be fired for no reason. There is no sick pay or pension.” If this isn’t an argument for forming a trade union I don’t know what is.
She is particularly keen to address the red-herrings of ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ surrounding prostitution, pornography and stripping. Rather than focussing on whether individual women are explicitly forced to participate, the litmus test for Banyard is always “what impact does the practice have on gender relations as a whole? Does it help end the subordination of women – or does it further perpetuate it?”
Turning to the future, she believes “ending discrimination against women will require no less than a total transformation of society at every level: international, national, local and individual”. To encourage readers to get involved over 40 feminist organisations are listed at the end of the book, including the grassroots group Birmingham Fems, the F-Word website and OBJECT, which challenges the increased sexual objectification of women in popular culture.
Entertaining, cogent and accessible, The Equality Illusion heralds the arrival of a fresh voice in feminist politics and deserves to become a landmark feminist text for the early 21st century. The fight back starts here.
The Equality Illusion. The Truth About Women And Men Today by Kat Banyard is published by Faber & Faber, priced £12.99.