Saturday, October 14, 2006

The end of the wave?

Years ago I was browsing through a second hand bookshop and I found a pile of American magazines from the late 1940s. The lead column in one of these magazines was written by a female editor. The editor asked the question of whether feminism had really been worth it: worth the disruption to relationships, to family life and to motherhood. She answered no.

I wish now that I had bought the magazine for future reference. The article seems to mark a significant shift in attitude; it was, after all, at exactly this time that the very long phase of first wave feminism finally came to an end.

I wonder too if we have now reached a similar turning point. It's possible that the shorter, but more intense, wave of feminism which began in the early 1970s and peaked in Australia in 1994 is now really starting to turn.

Older feminists seem to have become disillusioned with the disruption caused by feminism to their own personal lives; instead of a stridently orthodox feminism it's now increasingly common for political women to reassert the traditional in relationships, or even to express regret at some of the effects of feminism on society.

I'll give two recent examples. Jill Singer is the resident left-wing columnist for the Melbourne Herald Sun (possibly in her mid 30s, though I'm not sure). In her recent article on masculinity (Latham Shot Down 02/20/06), there's a clear shift away from the usual feminist support for role reversal and raising empathetic men. Nor is there talk of traditional provider-type men being dinosaurs or oppressors. Instead we get this:

While there's a growing number of women fortunate to have supportive stay-at-home husbands, the majority probably still prefer their man to be a traditional bread-winner.

Just as men hanker for women who are more gorgeous but less clever than themselves, women will generally keep seeking men who can provide for their family in material terms.

I hear many women complain they feel dudded in their relationships, that gender equality means women's workload is made unbearable by both work and home duties.

Their husbands apparently benefit from their wife's income but don't put in more at home themselves.

We're not just talking about caring for children, but old-fashioned domestic duties that men used to do such as household repairs. Sure, there are lots of good handymen out there, but they're not married to anyone I know.

It's pretty sad hearing a bunch of educated, well-paid, busy working mothers fantasising about their husbands repairing a door hinge.

Women might melt at the sight of men who are good with children and doggies, but what really brings us undone is an old-style bloke who knows one end of a spanner from the other and black from red in a balance sheet.

... Snags are for nagging, not shagging.

What women really want, sugggests the very left-wing Jill Singer, is an "old-fashioned bloke" rather than a feminist new man.

Then there's the recent contribution of feminist novelist Fay Weldon. Now 75, she too has broken with the feminist orthodoxy of the past. Instead of promoting gender role reversal as a "liberation" for women, she now worries that,

many women are failing to accept that, hormonally and physiologically, they are programmed to experience life differently from men.

I think we need to make the most of being women as women, not aspirational men. The assumptions we all make now as to what comprises a good relationship are upside down. The differences between men and females are what we should be celebrating.

Fay Weldon even appears to feel some guilt for her own earlier feminism. A near death experience convinced her of the existence of an after life, but she wrote that "It is not all sweetness and light over there, at least it won't be for me." A journalist for the Melbourne Age sought clarification on this and asked her if she had a sense that she was being held responsible for doing something bad. She answered,

Yes. Because contempory culture is (partly) my fault. If you help shift the balance in gender, you feel a vague responsibility. Because at the time people shook their fists at you and walked out on you because you were doing that and they may have been right.

I'm not suggesting that feminism will go away entirely. There will still exist feminist academics and a layer of femocrats in government employment (just as there was in the 1950s).

But hopefully some space will open up for family formation, just as it did in the post-War period. If this does occur, the challenge then for conservatives will be to weaken the influence of the underlying liberalism which keeps generating fresh waves of feminism (when the personal costs have been forgotten).


  1. It seems to me that much of this could be solved if men and women were just more polite to one another, more considerate, more respectful. I think some women were pushed towards feminism by the boorish behavior of men: snide comments and assumptions that women were less capable, less smart, and really only competent in the kitchen and bedroom. Watch movies from the 1940s and 1950s and you see plenty of this sort of condescension towards the women in the films. "Don't you worry your pretty little head about it", etc.

    If people would just treat others with common respect and without that kind of belittlement, perhaps women could fully engage in their traditional, genetically-driven roles and behaviors without feeling like it's caving in to male oppression. The fact is, women aren't as smart, aren't as competent in some areas, and do get more emotional about things that men don't. But there's no need to shove that in their faces and cause a backlash.

  2. Interesting that you mention 1994 as the year that feminism peaked in Australia.

    I was thinking to myself the other day that feminism probably peaked in the early to mid 1990s.

    That was about the time that the word 'political correctness' entered mainstream discourse and when feminists were coming under attack from US commentators like Camille Paglia.

    Leftists intellectuals seem to have moved onto multiculturalism and the disabled as their main object of focus.

  3. Mark, I've seen the kind of films you're talking about. I think you're right that they can't have helped much (though modern culture has done much worse in disrespecting women: think of those gangsta rap videos).

    NZ Conservative, it's interesting how the left tends to move on from one cause to another.

    In 1994 the big campaign issue in Australia was domestic violence. The issue was used to attack men, to the point at which even some leftists thought it had gone too far and started to protest (Don Parham, Beatrice Faust, Terry Lane).

    Australian feminists never really recovered their position after that, and the left-wing focus shifted to Aborigines (reconciliation) and then refugees.

    The left in Australia today seems a bit bewildered. It's still strong in academia, but most younger heterosexual males tend toward a right-wing liberalism rather than leftism.