'Calm down, dear!' – the women's movement and the crisis

Cuts to welfare, threats to wage-setting agreements for low-paid work, and rollbacks in public services are all having a severe impact on women in Ireland and across Europe. Not only that, but in classic ‘shock doctrine’ style, the economic crisis is being used to sideline and silence the fight for female equality. In a month which saw British universities minister David Willets blame feminism for the difficulties faced by working-class men, and David Cameron tell a female Labour MP to ‘calm down dear’ it should be obvious that the fight for equality of opportunity and parity of esteem is anything but over. The persistence of the word WAG as a descriptor, as Alison Spillane points out below, is another small clue that indicates the need for that struggle to continue. Luckily, active networks of resistance are refusing to capitulate to either austerity or the casualised discourse of misogyny; their demands for equality refusing burial by ‘exceptional economic circumstances’.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was an elaborate April Fools' Day prank when British universities minister David Willetts announced earlier this month that feminism was to blame for the struggles of working-class men. During a briefing on the government's social mobility strategy, Willetts told journalists feminism had 'trumped egalitarianism' over the past 40 years. Key feminist victories, such as the movement of women from the home into universities and workplaces, had been won at the expense of working-class men, he said. 

Willetts demonstrates a spectacular misunderstanding of some major progress made in the 20th century. The feminist movement put us firmly on the road to a more equal society. More than that – feminists laid the paving stones and, as Duncan Robinson puts it, feminism did not trump egalitarianism, feminism is egalitarianism.

Willetts' type of remark is not unique. Only days ago, a row erupted between the British Labour Party and the Tories when David Cameron told Labour MP Angela Eagle to 'calm down, dear' during PMQs in the House of Commons. The comment was denounced as 'sexist, patronising and insulting' by the Labour Party.

Interestingly, these slights from members of the Conservative Party come at a time when nearly £6 billion of the £8bn net revenue to be raised through cuts by 2014-2015 will come from women.

Willets's and Cameron's statements are symptomatic of a deeply damaging discourse that has gained more and more momentum as the global recession progresses. It has manifested itself in different ways across Europe and it is part and parcel of the neoliberal assault on women that European governments are unleashing in a cynical and misguided effort to resolve the crisis.

To be clear, this is not to say that men have been spared in the recession – expenditure cuts and tax increases have badly affected both sexes (albeit in different proportions), and the first area to be hit by mass unemployment was the male-dominated construction sector. As the recession progresses, however, traditionally female-dominated sectors such as retail and hospitality are likely to see further job losses.

In Ireland, the gender impact of the Fianna Fáil/Green Party austerity budgets did not feature in mainstream analysis, yet, as Adam Larragy has pointed out, the cumulative cuts in Widow's Pension, One-Parent Family Payment and the Carer's Allowance of nearly 10%, the cuts in Child Benefit of 8.5%, as well as reductions in services and public sector pay, have all affected women more heavily than men.

Despite all this, the impact of the recession on women is rarely discussed in public and political debate. As a response to this, the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), which represents over 180 member organisations, published the Charter for Women's Equality which aims to 'support local decision and policy making bodies, businesses, trade unions and women's groups to promote the achievement of women's equality'.

What are women in particular resisting? Well, the attacks are coming from many directions. The Irish government's unquestioning obedience to neoliberal mantras over the past two years has resulted in more and more public expenditure cuts, which impact more severely on women than men. Also, the introduction of the Universal Social Charge (USC) has brought people earning as little as €4,005 (or €77 per week) into the tax net; this has badly affected women as they are concentrated in low-paid and part-time work.

Another key element is the onset of shock-doctrine economics as employers attempt to benefit from the crisis by driving down wages. The €1 reduction in the minimum wage introduced in Budget 2011 was a clear warning sign of things to come for those concerned with social and economic justice. And, predictably, although the new coalition government of Fine Gael/Labour has committed to reversing the cut, this reversal will come at the price of reviews and possible revisions of Registered Employment Agreements (REAs) and Employment Regulation Orders (EROs). This was a move stipulated by the IMF/EU 'bailout' programme. REAs and EROs stipulate fixed rates of pay and other working conditions in certain sectors, many of which are traditionally female-dominated (i.e. retail, hairdressing, contract cleaning).

A subtler, but equally worrying, element in all of this is the presence of a discourse that is simply hostile (and at times aggressive) to women. The remarks made by Willetts and Cameron are a clear illustration of this. Other examples can be found in the casual references of Irish police officers to using threats of rape and deportation against women protesting the controversial Shell operation in Rossport; recently elected Finnish politician Jussi Halla-aho blogging about how he hoped immigrants would rape female members of the Green Party as a lesson in multiculturalism; and the language surrounding clear attacks on female liberty and religious autonomy such as the moves to ban the burqa. In France, legislation to this effect came into operation at the beginning of April; similar proposals have also been considered by the Danish and Italian parliaments; and the Belgian parliament voted on Thursday to ban the burqa (the legislation will now make its way to the Senate).

In terms of the Irish media, the Sunday Independent rarely disappoints when it comes to skewing the facts. In mid-March, (less than a week after International Women's Day), the paper published its annual Rich List. The cover of the 'Ireland's Rich List 2011' supplement screamed that not only were women living it up but that they always had been ('The rich get richer...the women still live the dream'). Not some women, or the women who still live the dream – just the women. The image shows a crowd of women surrounding two young men in suits, drinks in hand and cheesy grins apiece.

Although the photo admittedly looks dated, the reader has to turn to page 19 to discover it dates from the 1960s – why was such an image chosen to front a supplement that deals with 2010/2011? The implication of the photo is that women (all of us!) live the dream courtesy of hard-working entrepreneurial boyfriends/husbands/lovers. Indeed, take a look inside and there is a special section devoted to the WAGs of the super-rich which features, among others, the notably impoverished Andrea Corr and the hopelessly dependent restaurant and club owner Olivia Gaynor Long. In a weirdly patronising 'sisters are doing it for themselves' passage, we are told that the WAGs are 'carving out their own niches' – the implication here is that a wealthy husband was some kind of springboard for these women when in fact many of them were already established in their own right before meeting their partners. I am not in the habit of defending the super-wealthy (although they have been so cruelly 'humiliated' as Larry Mullen of renowned paupers U2 once lamented), whatever their gender, but the presentation of information in this kind of way is more than misleading, it is indicative of a societal neurosis over the role of women in Irish society.

The women's movement in Ireland is responding to the crisis on a number of levels – in conjunction with trade unions and civil society organisations it has campaigned for the protection of the lowest paid by protesting against the cut in the minimum wage and calling on politicians to ensure that any review of EROs and REAs is fair and transparent. Female-dominated professions such as nursing and midwifery are also joining in the fight against austerity. Earlier this year 4,000 student nurses and midwives took to the streets to protest against government plans to phase out their pay. The Domestic Workers Action Group (DWAG) is currently running a concerted campaign for an International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on the rights of domestic workers – a female-dominated and largely unregulated sector where thousands of women and girls work behind closed doors as cleaners, childminders, and carers of the elderly in an environment where wage exploitation, long working hours, forced labour, and sexual, physical and psychological abuse are all common.

In response to the inadvertently recorded rape threats made recently by Irish police officers,members of the Rape Crisis Centre, the National Women's Council of Ireland and the Irish Feminist Network attended a protest organised by Dublin Shell to Sea. The silent protest, held outside the Dail, was against the trivialisation of rape. 

As well as this, coalitions such as Turn Off the Red Light, which campaigns for an end to prostitution and sex trafficking, and pro-choice activist groups like Choice Ireland, are fighting to ensure that issues affecting women, but perhaps not so overtly linked to the crisis, are not put on the backburner in the current climate. The last few years have seen the development of more and more women's organisations and feminist groupings as well as the appearance of blogs like the Anti-Room and publications such as the RAG. The Feminist Open Forum in particular provides an excellent space for discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas.

Through protests, information campaigns and social networking, women are encouraging debate around gender equality. They are actively resisting both austerity and a discourse that threatens to roll back serious gains made by the women's movement over decades (it should be noted that the women's movement also includes many enthusiastic male activists and supporters). Furthermore, we are resisting the notion that gender equality can be further relegated to the sidelines because of a global crisis originating in the private sector – if the gender debate is shelved because of 'exceptional economic circumstances' the after-effects of this global recession will be all the more severe and all the more prolonged.