What might feminist policy look like?

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research

On 5 July 2013 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research hosted the third meeting of the Feminist Policy, Politics and Practice Forum. Janet Newman, Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University, opened the meeting and tracked the linkage between feminist activism and policy change. Is there an alignment between feminist debates that occur in non-state spaces and policy changes that are introduced by governments? What do these alignments look like, and how do they happen?

She tracked four different moments in the linkage between activism around feminist issues and governmental policy. The first period she argued was from soon after the Second World War till the Thatcher years. This was a period of the early equality campaigns around causes that we would now describe as liberal feminist issues. The policy changes introduced by the governments at the time were a result of people in government who were sympathetic to feminist causes.

The second period was in the ’80s during the Thatcher years, when politics acquired a certain charge, and became more confrontational and aggressive. The feminist campaigns at the time, perhaps responding to governmental attacks on the welfare state, also acquired this confrontational edge. By and large, feminist policy came to a standstill during this period.

The third period, with the New Labour government, saw the expansion of some kinds of state practice. There was a focus on partnerships with non-governmental organisations, and other forms of public participation, and as a result policy formation became dispersed. But with New Labour, the assumption was that the problem of gender inequality had been solved – meaning that one could do feminist policy, but one couldn’t use the word ‘feminist’.

At the present moment, in which there are significant welfare cuts, there is significant feminist activism outside government, but very little of it gets translated into governmental policy, according to Prof. Newman.

Joining the discussion were Anna Coute, who worked on issues relating to child poverty, and Lisa Harker, who worked on healthcare policy. Both these speakers reflected on their work inside and outside government, and the challenges and pressures they both faced while framing policy.

The meeting was opened for discussions and questions. The comments ranged from concerns over everyday issues of working mothers, to bigger questions about how to ensure that feminist policy continues to happen even in times of government-imposed austerity. Several of the participants reflected on their own experience of working in between government and campaigns. Others spoke of their disappointments with certain feminist allies in the political parties, while some spoke about the need to build links with emerging feminist players within party structures.

While, this was the last official meeting of the forum, Prof. Newman hoped that more conversations and spaces to push for feminist policy would emerge from this meeting.

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