What Feminism Offers Men

By Walter, Natasha | The Independent (London, England), June 28, 1999 | Go to article overview
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What Feminism Offers Men


Walter, Natasha, The Independent (London, England)


STOP PRESS! Feminists recant! Few things can be more delightful, in the eyes of the right-wing press, than an erstwhile feminist who has now decided that the time for liberation is over, and the time for backlash has begun. There is Fay Weldon, who still gets trotted out as a feminist even though she has been known to say: "Men are the new victims now." There is Maggie Gee, who is probably still a feminist, but who gave a long interview last week to mourn the fact that "female sexism has been legitimated", which was headlined "Has a feminist turned?" And now there is Rosalind Coward, who is publishing a book next week called Sacred Cows, in which she explains how she became "disenchanted with the idea of being a feminist".

And the reason that all these women give for their change of heart is the same: men. They cite male suicide, male unemployment, male dissociation from the family and the absence of viable male heroes as reasons for chucking feminism. Rosalind Coward, whose book makes a superficially compelling case, argues that while women now have the glorious constellations of girl power by which to sail their ships, men are drowning, unable to find any direction. She argues that while her daughter has a valid goal in simply finding employment - "It doesn't even matter what job she does, her status will be enhanced just by becoming a working woman" - her son is unsure whether anything will enhance his life, now that "the moral status of masculinity has completely gone".

Can we see these individual recantations as part of a wider movement? The death of feminism has been proclaimed repeatedly for over 200 years, and I think it's still rather soon for Coward to start the funeral. For a start, I wish I could be as sure as she is that women are the newly advantaged sex, trampling with their kitten heels on men's prone bodies. Girl power hasn't yet got men on the run. I picked up one newspaper on Saturday to find that they had drawn a useful little chart of Greg Dyke's network. There they all were - John Birt, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Melvyn Bragg - just one woman among all 16 of them. While a cabal of besuited men still runs this country, we can't claim that girl power is much more than a slogan. Of course, if you concentrate, as Coward does, on successful middle-class women's lives, she's right to say that feminism has gone great guns, putting some women today in a different universe from the one that their mothers or grandmothers inhabited. But feminists should look behind the flashy success of a few individual women. It's important to look at the lives of all women. And to recognise that as long as, for instance, three times as many women as men earn under pounds 4 an hour, there are still women's interests to be fought for. If Coward had talked to some of those women, or to some of the young women who start families at 16 or younger because they can't think of anything else to do, or to women who are dealing with domestic violence in the absence of state-funded refuges, she might not state so blithely that everyone's daughters are now better off than everyone's sons. And yet Rosalind Coward, Maggie Gee and Fay Weldon have a point when they say that the time for a feminism that always pits all women against all men is over. Why should we line up, women on one side, men on the other, blocking each other's paths rather than moving forward together? At a time when many men are suffering from unemployment and disaffection, isn't it out of place to blame all men for the problems that women face? We should be able to distinguish between a system that tends to advantage men, and the individual men who may not have won out even in that system. If feminism were really as Coward describes it, simply intent on demonising all men, then Coward would be right - it should be chucked. But feminism isn't usually like that. Not any more - if it ever was.

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