Back to index of Nerve 19 - Winter 2011

So what’s the point of feminism, anyway?

By Hannah Ryan - Junior Doctor and Secretary of Merseyside Women’s Movement
Illustration by Tom Donohue

A busy night in A&E, two hours away from the end of a long shift. I pick up a new set of case notes and trudge down the corridor to cubicle nine. A solicitor in his early forties; he’s had some chest pain and is worried he’s had a heart attack. He has an anxious-looking wife with him, who keeps nipping out to deal with a tricky childcare situation. After examining him, I explain that I think a heart attack is unlikely, but I want to keep him in for a few hours for some tests. The wife looks a lot less stressed and is gathering belongings to head back to the four kids she has been worrying about. But my patient is still looking concerned. I ask him if he has any more questions. He leans towards me, and places a hand on one of mine:

“You’ve explained everything really clearly, and I’m sure you’re doing all the right things, but I’d just much rather hear it all from a male doctor.”

As a junior doctor, these sorts of encounters are a part of the job, and usually a source of humorous anecdote. Being mistaken for a nurse is a routine occurrence, and the male nurses I have worked with often get the reverse treatment. Spending a consultation talking to a patient who is more focused on asking you about getting them a sandwich than hearing your clinical opinion isn’t rare, nor is it uncommon for the patient to listen attentively, and then address all their questions to the male medical student next to you. Male and female patients of all ages act this way, although I find that the female patients are often more apologetic when they mistake you for a nurse, while some of the male patients merrily carry on mis-labelling you – “Ta, gell. Can you get me another pillow, nurse?”

As a feminist activist, I am often asked why we still need a feminist movement. Women have everything, don’t they? They can go to work, stay at home, vote, have abortions, pole dance to keep fit, and get blown up for their country if they want to. What more could women ask for?

There are many ways of approaching this question.

Despite the Equal Pay Act being 40 years old, women in full time work are still paid an average of 15.5% less than men for equivalent labour, and 64% of minimum wage workers are women. There are four male MPs for every female in the Westminster Parliament, and out of the 23 ministers in the Cabinet only four are women. Women’s right to a safe abortion is under attack, and rape crisis centres and women’s refuges are chronically under-funded and now many face closure after wave upon wave of public sector cuts.

Many families still face huge problems accessing affordable childcare, compelling a parent (often the mother) to stay at home – this affects the family balance sheet, the mother’s ability to re-enter the workplace, and her pension. Dads who stay at home still face derision and claims that they are not ‘real men’. Women contribute billions of pounds-worth of caring labour for free to our economy. If mums and carers everywhere went on strike, the current global economic downturn would seem like a minor blip. And this is before we move on to the violence that one in four women in the UK will experience during their lifetime. And before we discuss the plight of women globally who bear the brunt of poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare, and who suffer unimaginable violence as a result of their gender.

Frankly, ask any feminist what the big deal is, and you should expect the kind of incredulity you might encounter if you asked Nelson Mandela what the point of the ANC was.

But perhaps I could save time if I just told this story. The fact that a middle-class, well educated man, who is living in an age of supposed gender equality would be so openly sexist illustrates perfectly why we still need feminism. We still need feminism because, like racism, homophobia and ableism, sexism still exists. Not only has it not gone away, it is common, pervasive and, in some quarters, growing. Gender discrimination is bad for women and men, and must be resisted everywhere. It is not a trivial problem to laugh off. It keeps women and children worse off globally, and is an integral part of the brutal capitalist system that enslaves so many. Without sexism, capitalism as we know it would not function.

It is frowned upon in the medical community to unleash furious feminist diatribes on patients. Tired and quietly seething, it seemed like a huge effort to remove my hand from underneath his, and calmly explain that it would not be possible to get a male doctor to come and repeat all the things I had just said, because this was a busy Saturday evening in a city centre A&E. He could wait until one of the consultants was available to talk to him, but (due to it being the 21st century) they were both women too. He took this devastating news well, all things considered. I looked at his wife, who had only said a few words throughout the whole consultation, and thought I caught the trace of a smile.

Get involved with Merseyside Women’s Movement, a community-based activist group promoting women’s rights in Merseyside and raising money for local and international women’s charities.

Go to or join our Google group to receive emails about what we’re up to - merseysidewomensmovement[at]

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