The Fawcett Society has launched a judicial review against the government on the basis that 72 per cent of the proposed budget cuts will be met directly by women, thus contravening the Gender Equality duty. The challenge is partly informed by a report by the UK Women’s Budget Group, which argues that the government’s plan to raise £8 billion from benefit cuts will discriminate against women. It cites Fawcett
Society statistics that show how, on average, one fifth of women’s incomes are made up of tax credits and benefits, compared with one tenth of men’s. So far, so reasonable. But after citing evidence from the Journal of Human Resources that “mother’s income has been shown to be more likely to be spent on the children than father’s”, the report then asserts, with semantic absolutism, that plans to freeze child benefit for three years from April 2011 “will reduce the real income of all mothers”. By ignoring the impact on fathers (effectively rendering all of them absent), it merely reinforces the gender inequality the review claims to challenge.
Similarly, the report argues that cuts to the public sector will have a disproportionate impact on women, more of whom are employed in it, and depend on public services relating to maternity and care for the elderly, for example. But when 94 per cent of prisoners are male, cuts to legal aid, the Youth Justice board and the prison service are arguably gender-discriminatory, too. Other significant reductions in funds for regeneration and communities projects, and eventually, to education, will penalise the vulnerable, irrespective of gender.
The report concludes that a “Maid Marian” tax on the rich would offset women’s relative economic disempowerment. Besides the tax being bizarrely named (quite apart from being a maid, Marian is hardly a Marxist-feminist heroine), the report seems predicated on the syllogism that if the poorest in Britain are women and the richest are men, all women must be to some extent oppressed by prevailing male wealth. But in Britain today, it’s hardly a radical observation that women are never poor simply because they are women, nor men privileged simply because they are men.
More than 200 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that education would emancipate women from being mere passive objects and “helpmeets”. Today, girls outperform boys at every stage of education, while one in four lap dancers has a degree — yet another example of the complexities of what constitutes equality. If we are to truly tackle gender inequality, a much more nuanced analysis of the intersectional factors that create it is needed. And if liberal feminism wishes to avoid the discrimination trap itself, it will need to be an analysis that stops focusing on female disadvantage alone.