This piece originally appeared on New Left Project as part on an international collaboration for May Day 2011.
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.
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