Wednesday Book: From Feminism to Womanism

Article excerpt



ONE OF the more irritating aspects of contemporary publishing is its obsession with the provocative, over-simplified thesis. It's as if publishers believe no reader can concentrate long enough to consider the complex connection between past and present, success and failure, but must always be seduced with neat endings or born-again beginnings - of socialism, feminism or history itself.

Sadly, Ros Coward, a writer both complex and richly uncertain, has been persuaded into this marketing trap. As with her last book, Our Treacherous Hearts, this volume promises more than it delivers on the sensation front. Our Treacherous Hearts was not about betrayal: it was an interesting set of reflections on the problems of contemporary middle-class mothers and why they have stopped demanding personal change from middle-class men.

Similarly, Sacred Cows is not really about the end of feminism - as if one author could arrogantly put such a great social movement to rest - but a series of essays on the new problems and possibilities facing women and men. If it weren't heralded as a startling obituary on the F- word, much would seem familiar, even banal.

Coward takes us through the many achievements of women over the past few decades: greater access to education, new opportunities in work, the elimination of many crasser forms of discrimination. Thus, she can assert, "Women are no longer in the doll's house - permanently limited, infantilised and unhappy because of dependency on men". At the same time, many men - especially working-class men - have lost their old certainty.

So far, so good. Coward is skilled at showing us how out of step political and economic change can be. Just as feminism was reaching its angriest stage in the mid-Eighties, the economic structures sustaining male advantage began to crumble. Similarly, the Nineties, characterised by economic instability in "male" employment areas, have been defined by an unattractive "womanism", with everyone from loud-mouthed liberal columnists to commercially manipulated girl groups crowing about how much better girls are than boys.

Coward carefully charts each move and counter-move in this phony sex war. She is right to find the new womanism distasteful. The Nineties have yielded centre-stage to a particular character type: showy, pleased with herself, and wholly insensitive to anything but her own interests. If, as Coward acidly observes, feminism of an earlier era was powered by a certain kind of "creatively damaged" person, then "womanism" has been driven by its latest variant: the self-satisfied narcissist. …