...the label 'feminist' is often forcefully rejected, particularly by young women. New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggests that, in rejecting feminism, women are often seeking to position themselves within conventional norms of femininity and heterosexuality.
"In many contemporary European societies, the term feminism provokes unease and even hostility," says Dr Christina Scharff of King's College London, who carried out the research"...
Playing an important role in the rejection of feminism in both countries are the distorted stereotypes of the 'man-hating feminist', the 'unfeminine feminist' or the 'lesbian feminist'. Many participants in the study did not want to call themselves ‘feminist’ because of these stereotypes.
...Although none of the participants could point to specific individuals, most still viewed the pioneers of gender equality as 'lesbian, man-hating feminists'.
And then there's this:
A study commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and published today found that feminism is regarded virtually unanimously in negative terms, ranging from old-fashioned to "ball breaking".
Those questioned felt women were more equal than ever before and believed that issues such as women's greater domestic role or concentration in lower-paid jobs are the result of individual choice and natural differences between the sexes which had to be addressed by individuals rather than, as the women's movement argued, society as a whole.
The findings of the Future Foundation study, Talking Equality, have sent shockwaves through the EOC.
The suspicions that young women have when it comes to the "pioneers of gender equality" are fully justified. And the problem is not just that a fair proportion of these pioneers were man-haters. Equally significant is that they were women who did not like or accept womanhood or femininity. Many were as anti-female as they were anti-male.
I was reminded of this when reading about one of the major pioneers of second wave feminism in the 1970s, Shulamith Firestone. She wrote:
The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital difference between human beings would no longer matter culturally.
That is one of the drives of liberal modernity: to make sex distinctions not matter. If you believe that the end goal of politics is to maximise individual autonomy, then you will want to make your life as self-determining as possible, which will then mean that you will reject predetermined qualities, such as your own sex. As you cannot change your sex, the next best thing you'll be able to do is to make it not matter.
A generation earlier, the same ideas were in circulation. In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir could describe the intellectual temper of her own times as follows:
If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman. Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘I cannot be just to books which treat of woman as woman ... My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.
That's particularly interesting as it traces the failure to accept sex distinctions to an even deeper change in philosophy: from philosophical realism (which accepted the real existence of masculine and feminine essences) to nominalism (which saw such categories as having no real existence but as being names to group things).
Can sex distinctions be made not to matter? Well, not very easily. A University of California neuroscientist, Larry Cahill, has just recently been interviewed on differences between the male and female brain:
The differences exist at virtually all levels, he says, from those of tiny cells to large structures in the brain, from brain chemistry to what he calls intriguing differences in the way men and women remember emotionally searing events.
What it is, is just a storm of sex differences, big and little, found all over the place – down to the level of single neurons. We see these differences everywhere, and we started to realize, damn, we simply assume they aren't there. And these sex differences have implications for how the brain works and how to fix brains. That's your big story right there.
For me it's the existence of this huge fire in neuroscience. We've been collectively in kind of denial about it. But we've hit some sort of critical mass in the last couple of years. It's really starting to change.