Comment: The Betrayal of Feminism If Baroness Jay Has No Wish to Be Identified with the Century's Transforming Force, Who Gives a Toss?

By Roberts, Yvonne | The Independent (London, England), November 13, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Comment: The Betrayal of Feminism If Baroness Jay Has No Wish to Be Identified with the Century's Transforming Force, Who Gives a Toss?


Roberts, Yvonne, The Independent (London, England)


ONE RESPONSE, of course, would be to turn it into a verb. To jay: to rat on the influences that have helped to make you what you are. So when Baroness Margaret Jay, the government's Women's Minister, denies that she is a feminist (sending out a clear signal to aspiring New Labour female MPs, that they should best do likewise), you could politely suggest that she has jayed on her past.

The Baroness has since clarified her position further. "In politics, feminism is seen as negative, complaining about things, it's perceived to be about separateness, putting up a brick wall between men and women. I don't think you have to be negative like that..."

I guess that must have been the kind of negativism that has spawned a thousand and one active self-help groups across the UK,and urged change in recruitment practices in any number of professions so that talent isn't ignored just because it happens to be female. Or perhaps it's the negativism which - inspired by the belief that democracy is about representation - campaigned for quotas for women so that over 100 females are now in the Commons? And is that the "separateness" which has fuelled women activists who argue that fatherhood should mean much more than being a wage-earner? What has really struck home about the views expressed over the past few days, a chorus echoing Baroness Jay, is just their old- fashionedness. Bring out the psychedelic flares and step into my time machine. Feminism is shunned because it's seen as whingeing, man-hating, a training ground for harridans. All quite right too - back in the Sixties and Seventies. In New York then, Cell 16, one offshoot of the sisterhood, argued with great subtlety that women were essentially good, and men rotten. Pretty clothes, heterosexual sex and lipstick identified you as a collaborator. Well, they didn't come more collaborative than me, aged 20, blinded by false eyelashes and desperate to be deflowered. I didn't agree with Cell 16 and the other "extremists", but their very radicalism made me think about the issues they raised. No matter what the advertisements flogging domesticity and skin creams told us - "She's Engaged! She's Lovely! She uses Pond's!" - there had to be more to life than complete dependency on a man and a complexion like silk. Again, all men might not be rapists, but as research has since confirmed some of the "nicest" and most distinguished men (eg Arthur Koestler) can and do force themselves violently on women without comeback. Feminism wouldn't have been born again, if we hadn't had those "harridans" to act at the time as midwife. Forty years ago, a manual, What Makes Women Buy, became a huge hit in the USA. It explained that if you wanted to sell to "the weaker sex" you had to realise that, among other issues, "Women's bone structure... overwhelmingly leads her towards more passive interests and an inward life." She also "has a strong tendency to irrational beliefs". I - and Margaret Jay - grew up in that culture, as did Susan J Douglas, author of Where the Girls Are. "Whatever this category `woman' was," she writes, "I didn't want a part of it. It meant you'd be... ridiculed as dumb yet overbearing, incompetent yet scheming and frivolous yet dangerous... It seemed as if we had only two choices: sink or organise a mutiny." So mutiny we did. The irony of this week's apostasy is that the reasons to espouse feminism now are far richer and more inclusive. In short, Baroness Jay could have turned her moment of betrayal into something positively triumphant - and very New Labour. She could have said that feminism is not only alive and well, it's biggest success has been under the present government. For the first time, the so called politics of the kitchen table is being recognised as a central part of strategy; the man-made divisions between the private family and public areas of work and the economy are being broken down. Tony Blair and co, prefer to call this "holistic government" and "joined-up policy making" and that's fine by me - but feminism is what's printed right through the centre of this particular stick of rock.

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