Friday, February 10, 2006

Are we entering a feminist down phase?

Some years ago I was browsing through a pile of American magazines from the late 1940s in a second hand bookshop. The most interesting article I found was written by a female columnist (the magazine was from around 1946 or 1947). She argued that women had had enough of the hardships brought about by feminism (loneliness, childlessness etc) and that it would be a relief to return to more traditional values.

Which is what women did in the 1950s, thereby ending the first great wave of feminism which had begun (roughly speaking) in the 1860s (there had been individual feminists before then, but it seems to have been in the 1860s that feminism was first taken up as government policy in Great Britain).

I wonder if we are now poised on the brink of another feminist down phase. There seems to be a similar weariness amongst women - an unwillingness to continue shouldering the burden of overwork and poor family outcomes which are associated with modern feminism.

This wearing down of feminism from within is especially marked in a recent article in the Daily Mail by Amanda Platell (The Silent Conspiracy, 28th January 2006). The entire article is worth reading as evidence of a change in attitude, but let me cite some of the most revealing passages.

Here is Amanda Platell explaining that despite her glamorous career and lifestyle she wishes to question the feminist legacy:

Fortunate as I am to have lived the life I have done, my marriage ended in failure and I was never able to have the children I longed for (though in my case that owed more to biology than circumstance). Look around you and there are plenty of others like me; the women who inherited a new world order - and who now bear the emotional scars to prove it.

It's only now, as we start to look back, that we can see just how much we've scorched the social landscape around us. In our rush to embrace the new, we have systematically rejected much that, for centuries past, had brought women stability and happiness. Is it any wonder that the younger generation aren't sure what to think, and instead allow the thrill of youthful hedonism to drown out the conflicting signals around them.

On the one hand they are told they must strive to have it all; and on the other, they can see around them the evidence that this will never truly be possible. Or at least not without great cost to their physical and emotional well-being.

Far too often, it seems to me, the unwitting price of female emancipation has been heartache, stress and a life spent chasing false promises. But if we women are ever to feel truly happy with our lot, I believe we have to stop whingeing, stop blaming men and society, stop playing the victim and stand up and ask the unthinkable; are we ruining for ourselves? Could it be that the freedom we now enjoy is part of the problem?

Another revealing part of the article begins when Amanda Platell seeks a comment from author Fay Weldon, once a feminist icon:

"Women like you should be cursing women of my generation", she told me. "All we did was make you go out to work and earn money and have children and completely exhaust yourselves. I'm sorry". She called women like me 'the lost generation' - the ones who had inherited a barren landscape after the revolution had marched through.

"If you want to be like a man, then feminism hasn't gone far enough", she said, "if you want to be like a woman, it has gone too far.

And there, straight away, was the kernel of the matter: feminism was supposed to about equality, not sameness. We wanted to better our sex, not obliterate it. But that is what has happened. In striving to be the same as men, the only things we were guaranteed were the exhaustion and stress and guilt that came with the effort of labouring to become something we never were and never could be.

And striving to be like a man had other consequences. For a start, men don't like it - at least, not the kind of men you'd want to spend your life with. This has led to another unsayable truth. Women today take their 20's out for themselves, to pursue career and relationships - but not permanent ones - to experiment, to have fun. It's the 'me' decade of their life. I have no problem with that, but it does lead to a kind of independence that can make it hard for women to ever settle down with another person and willingly accept all the emotional and financial compromises that entails.

This, in turn, has led to another unintended consequence - this time biological. The principled and often pathological belief that men and women have to be treated the same has led women to believe they can have kids whenever they want and with whomever they want - or even by themselves if they choose. The principle legacy of that belief is not more contented mothers, but more women putting money in the pockets of a booming fertility industry as they discover the hard way that nature doesn't perform to order and pays no regard to social idealism.

Then there is the following extraordinary admission which Amanda Platell obtains from Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Women:

I felt sure the Minister for Women, Tessa Jowell, would have some right-on feminist response, so I tracked her down at the start of a countrywide tour where she was listening to women's concerns. I expected a sop: what I got was a shock.

Tessa said straight out that her daughter would not tolerate the stress of the impossible juggling act that women of her generation performed. Moreover, she admitted no amount of government policy would ever bring about the perfect work/life balance that might help make women happier. Part of the problem, she admitted, was that the anticipated participation of men in the home and parenting stakes has simply not materialised, and certainly not to the degree expected.

Women, even when they work full-time, are still the primary carers of children and elderly relatives, still do most of the housework, cooking and shopping. Only a fraction of men have taken up paternity leave.

Perhaps, as Tessa suggested to me, such characteristics are part of women's DNA - and no amount of legislation can change this fundamental difference between the sexes.

(This last statement of Tessa Jowell is the most significant. It represents a truly heretical thought within the church of liberalism: that perhaps we can't choose to be anything we will ourselves to be, because science has proven the reality of gender difference. Gender, in other words, can't be made not to matter, because our distinctive masculinity and femininity is hardwired into us.)

Time will tell whether Amanda Platell is representative of the spirit of the age, and that we really are to get some relief from feminism.

I'm not suggesting that institutional feminism will go away. Even in the 1950s there were UN women's officers jetting around the globe to various conferences and no doubt this will continue.

But perhaps at ground level some more space will open up for romance, marriage and motherhood.


  1. Thank God for the Internet, and thank Him yet again for Oz Conservative.

    Without this service, I would have absolutely no source of rightist news and opinion.

    Keep up the great work mate! You are not alone, and we are reading your material regularly.

  2. Anon, thanks for the comment which is warmly appreciated.

  3. I have for some time believed that it is a grave error made by many women to leave their child bearing till later in life .why have so many feminsits seen such virtue in living to work rather that working enough to live ?

  4. Bobby,

    Looking down (I'm in my 40s) I can see the landscape of the mating scene and it's hard yakka for men. As Amanda notes women now do the career and no strings relationships until they decide (sometime) in their 30s that they might like to have children and/or get married.

    But by then it's a lot harder.

    Here in NZ we've had 9 years of a very feminised government. Fortunately that is over and we have a new PM who is both pragmatic and a family man. But the impact of the Clark policies will linger for some time and our children will bear the scars of it with rising crime in the teenage years already prevalent.

    So perhaps a pause is overdue whilst everyone stops and has a good think as to where things go from here.

  5. One of the problems with feminist theory is that 99% of it was relentlessly ignorant of relevant cross-cultural and historical data. With some scholarship to help someone might have pondered the trajectory from Alexandra Kollontai to Stalin, or asked themselves why it was that in mother-goddess land in South India, where women worked alongside men in traditional agriculture, why was it that when any economic surplus was achieved, women's first choice was to stay home? For that matter, the history of the kibbutz is also instructive.