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FIRING LINE – Feminist frame of mind

Shantal Munro Knight

FIRING LINE – Feminist frame of mind

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Previously, feminism was associated with a brand of radical politics that was bold and unyielding in its demands for women’s equality. To be called a feminist in the heyday of the movement was a label worn with both pride and some trepidation.
Today, it is one of those old “dirty” words that has gained new currency under the cover of intellectualism and the emergence of a new brand of politically correct women’s leadership. 
The internationalization of the fight for equality has seen the emergence of the more neutral term “gender equality”. The feminist discourse has now changed from women’s rights as a human right to women gaining political rights with men.
In this environment as soon as you speak of women’s equality and empowerment, someone will invariably ask: what about the situation of men or young boys? Herein lies my dilemma, as I find myself struggling to come to terms with the current discussion around the notion of gender equality, what it means and whether or not feminism is still a relevant term outside of an academic lecture.
When you look around the world today, the face of leadership has changed. It used to be male, middle-aged and monied. Today that picture is dotted with the faces of women who are making their mark in traditionally male-dominated spaces – women like Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, the first woman to serve as attorney general there, the first female leader of the Opposition, the country’s first female prime minister; Angela Merkel, the first female chancellor of Germany and only the second woman to chair the G8; and the presidents of Brazil and Costa Rica.
At other levels as well, it is clear that women are moving into other non-traditional spaces; one only has to look as far as this newspaper and its current leadership.        
The question is, though, is this a victory for the feminist movement? If so, are we talking about the old feminist movement or the present? Is it a victory for gender equality? Perhaps it is a victory for no one and just a happenstance. You see, I am not sure that there are many women leaders today at whatever level who would identify themselves with the feminist struggle (new or old).
They might speak of gender equality for political correctness but there seems to be little identification with the growth of women leadership and the feminist struggle.
The fight for women’s leadership, as I understood it, was more than just to have a woman or “put woman” in a leadership position, as a colleague of mine says.
It was more than just counting heads and lining up one against the other for the equality count. It was fundamentally about a typology of leadership that would be distinctive, innovative and, more importantly, policy-changing. 
Have we seen it? Has it emerged? Perhaps I missed it in a blink of an eye – no, I don’t think so. I could be wrong and I am sure that there is some scholar who will challenge me, but my trained, and admittedly cursory, observations have not been able to detect that the advent of women in key political and leadership spaces has led to a “brave new world”, a change in international political governance or even, at the minimum, led to increases in the welfare of women generally.
Perhaps I am asking for too much; perhaps it is enough that we claim the spaces and continue to march forward on the equality train without necessarily looking at what we are actually producing. 
Having worked with young women, I know they have a sense of being able to accomplish anything and they do not understand nor do they identify
with feminism or some unseeing struggle that is ongoing for women’s empowerment. For young women and many of us generally, women compete equally and should have no complaints. The seeming victory apparently has obliterated the struggle.  
The reality of the situation, as told by the statistics, suggests that all is not as wonderful as the impression we would like to give where women’s equality, rights and empowerment are concerned. Moving beyond the gender equality halo and resurrecting the old feminist constructs of women’s transformative leadership and women’s voices – all voices at all levels – might, however, put more mortar in the pestle than is needed.
Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and deputy coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. She will be writing Firing Line in this space every other Sunday. Email [email protected]