Thursday, April 24, 2008

Leading English feminist: our big mistakes

Rosie Boycott is a big name in English feminism. Back in 1971 she founded the feminist magazine Spare Rib with Marsha Rowe and in 1973 the pair founded the publishing house Virago Press.

So it's significant that Rosie Boycott is now rethinking the feminism she did so much to promote. In an article for the Daily Mail Boycott renounces key aspects of feminist patriarchy theory.

Patriarchy theory assumes that autonomy is the key good in life, the good which confers our status as humans, and that men have organised society so that they get autonomy (the power of doing as we will) at the expense of women. If you believe this then logically the traditional male career role will appear to be the truly human one which everyone should aspire to. Furthermore, if society is organised to maximise autonomy for men, then it's logical to believe that men get to do what they want and have easy, privileged lives compared to beleaguered, oppressed women.

Rosie Boycott had such beliefs as a young woman:

When I first became a feminist, back in the 1960s, I thought the male ways of life were the gold standard, the way life was meant to be ...

Unlike women, who were tied to the kitchen sink by their apron strings, enmeshed in childcare from sun-up to sun-down without the time or scope to advance their own careers and intellectual pursuits, men were free of all these onerous responsibilities.

They were free to pursue intellectual goals, to work, to succeed, above all to be leaders of the world.

I believed, along with so many others, that women, deep down (or not so deep down), wanted to do all that as well.

We believed we were prevented from doing so only because men, and the sexist world they created, prevented us.

They kept us out of the club because otherwise their power base would be threatened, and if women didn't stay at home with the kids, ready with the supper, slippers and sherry, then their world would be a much poorer place.

In this view men haven't worked hard for the benefit of women; instead, they have organised in a deliberate way to exclude women from the good life. Little wonder then that second wave feminism damaged relations between the sexes.

Rosie Boycott then explains that she believed that sex differences were the result of conditioning and that being a woman (the non-human role) wasn't something that girls were born into, as a biological destiny, but something they were merely brought up to be:

Girls have started to outperform boys at GCSE and A-levels: they get more places in university and better degrees.

In the U.S. between 1969 and 2000, male undergraduates increased by 39 per cent, whereas female ones increased by 157 per cent.

The trend continues beyond education and into the workplace.

In their early 20s, recent reports show, women are actually out-earning men in many instances.

All this proved to me, and to other feminists, that biology in no way dictates your destiny.

In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says: "One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman."

I agreed.

We were all born equal: it was only what happened in the nurturing process that decided the differences between men and women.

And we women were all destined to become desperate housewives - desperate to break out of the rigid roles society had accorded us.

But her expectations were confounded. Women who were "high flyers" in their 20s, elected to scale back their work commitments in their 30s. Was this simply due to discrimination at work? Rosie Boycott once thought so, but now thinks that discrimination cannot adequately explain what is happening - not when women are being actively encouraged in the workplace.

She has read a book by Canadian academic Susan Pinker, called The Sexual Paradox, which discusses some of the hardwired, biological differences between men and women. After briefly listing some of these differences Rosie Boycott writes:

What Pinker has done, in fact, is to have proved how and why girls are different from boys right from the womb, when they are pumped full of different hormones.

You can see these differences from very early on - and they cannot be "overridden".

Nature wins over nurture every time.

I've had many feminist friends who have relentlessly presented their tiny daughters with bright-red fire engines to play with, only to be aghast when they throw them aside in favour of a Barbie doll.

The converse is true for boys.

Above all, the hormones women receive in the womb mean that, by nature, they do not want to be manic, one-dimensional workhorses who invest all their energies in one thing: their job (or hobby).

Overall, they are less extreme than men.

The social critic Camille Paglia once wrote: "There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper."

Men are simply more variable - there are more really stupid ones and more very smart ones than women; more extremely lazy ones and more who are willing to halfkill themselves with overwork.

Women, by contrast, are steadier, less risk-taking.

As a consequence, they live longer.

In other words, because of their biological make-up, most women want to limit the amount of time they spend at work and to find "inherent meaning" there ...

Boycott then describes her former understanding of equality:

When I set out into the world as a working woman, I believed the quest for equality with men was a quest for the right to have the same life as a man: a full-time job (an obsessive one at that), a fulltime hobby, a partner who really did split the child-care neatly down the middle, plenty of time for "me" to do whatever I wanted.

Again, note here the contradiction generated by patriarchy theory: the belief that the male career role, as demanding as it is, is the desirable autonomous human one, combined with the belief that men, with their privilege of autonomy, get easy lives in which they are free to do what they want.

Rosie Boycott has redefined her understanding of what true sex equality means. She wants a concept of equality which allows womanhood to be valued, so she suggests that men and women be thought of as equal but different:

Our values, Pinker asserts, are based on the simple fact that the world of men (i.e. success and drive) is the correct model.

While society continues primarily to value skills that emphasise money as the only currency of success, the skills that women have will always be seen as second-rate - and women will be seen to be failing.

The tragedy is that it is women who end up paying the price for this misunderstanding.

Too many of us struggle on in jobs we do not like, simply because the fiscal rewards are seen as the marker of achievement.

I realise, of course, that there is a danger here of over-simplifying the debate: affording a home often requires two full-time incomes.

Yet, it is equally undeniable that all of the women whom Pinker spoke to who had decided to step off the career ladder - whether to devote more time to their children or to develop their own businesses - report far greater degrees of satisfaction.

What we need to do, she asserts, is to stop rating women according to men and accept that the sexes truly are different ...

To make men and women genuinely equal, we have to accept and honour difference, not mark everyone's scorecard according to the same set of standards.

So has Rosie Boycott become a traditionalist? Not really. She is still enmeshed in the modernist principle that what matters is getting what you want, creating your own self and being unimpeded in your choices. She does recognise, though, that today it is the impediment of ideology which is most likely to restrain a woman's free choice in life. So her conclusions, even if they are framed in modernist terms, still seem radically at odds with feminist orthodoxy:

I also believe that Pinker's book should mark a watershed.

Sexual equality is all very well.

But real equality comes from making your own choices, not just following the well-trodden path towards careerism, simply because it has been signposted by society as the only path to success.

Liberation must always be about being yourself, not simply a clone.

The battle of the sexes is over.

Let the fight for women to be women commence.


  1. Sorry, but I still think that you are profoundly ignorant of feminism. It isn't a monolithic orthodoxy.
    There are plenty of feminists who valorise motherhood and femininity, but with the disclaimer that in an enlightened society, women should be free to choose something else, if they wish.

  2. Happy Revolutionary, you're not a careful enough reader. It's not just me in this article making a claim, but one of the founders of second wave feminism. Would you call her profoundly ignorant of feminism?

    Are there feminists who valorise motherhood and femininity? It's true that autonomy theory says that we should be free to choose who we are and that, in theory, a woman could justify being a feminine homemaker on this basis.

    The problem is that this choice is seen to be the wrong one, because it is thought to restrict autonomy.

    It's a difficulty within the theory: we are supposed to maximise our individual autonomy, which means that we should, in theory, be free to choose in any direction, but we violate the theory if we choose in a way which limits our autonomy.

    So in practice you get feminists like Linda Hirshman who write books telling women who choose home and family that they are making the wrong choice; or else you get feminists who do choose home and family but who feel conflicted to a varying degree in what they are doing.

    In the meantime, government policy around the Western world is based on an orthodox feminism which says that the traditional male role is the human one which must be divided equally between men and women and that the power of the state must be used to achieve an equality of outcome in regard to career participation and earnings (haven't you noticed this?).

    There is no easy acceptance in Western societies of distinct gender roles. If more men than women choose to participate in a particular profession it causes much consternation among the political class. In the Scandinavian countries, there are policies being put in place to raise taxes on those families in which a wife spends more time at home with her children than the husband.

    None of this exists by accident. It is the putting into practice of a set of political principles.

    If you're really interested I've elaborated on all this in a number of articles:

    On the problem within feminism of choosing motherhood:

    Getting it straight

    Is family a valid feminist choice?

    On feminist mothers:

    When feminists become mothers

    Not quite getting there

    On the conflict within autonomy theory:

    Women and coercive autonomy

  3. Boycott qualifies the equality she wants. No more of this "sexual equality", only "real equality" will now do. She is subscribing to a variant we could call "different but equal". Some of the furniture is rearranged, and granted it's arranged better--you can walk through the room now--but it's still the same tired, faded, threadbare furniture.

  4. Mark,
    you might find this interesting from


    The males, through their inquisitiveness, courage, and rationality, open up the possibilities of great change, but it is woman who ensures that all change be kept to a minimum and that which she does allow be kept firmly towards the "common good". Man is by nature wild and adventurous. In him lie the possibilities of great creativity, but also the possibilities of great havoc and discord within the tribe. Hence, woman evolved with the power needed to restrain him.

    Women often complain bitterly about the dreaded "patriarchal society" and their oppression under it, but I cannot believe that they are completely ignorant of the vast power they actually possess in society. Indeed, they play an enormous role in the historical process. The role of woman is not only one of reproduction and the rearing of offspring. Equally important is the emotional power the females possess over the males. Women are the preservers of the social organism, and the men are tools to this end. Thus history is as much a woman's story, even though it is true that as an individual she was very much out of the limelight."

    I am a woman, feminists do not speak for me in any regard whatsoever. They claim that feminism is synonymous with "the best interest of women." This is a fallacy. They are simply the loudest, pushiest, most masculine, revolutionary and therefore most listened to female voices.

    Why, happy revolutionary, should only women be given choices? By your reasoning, men ought to have the same choices (an impossibility when it comes to unwanted pregnancy - only one parent can get what they want unless they want the same thing.) The 'enlightened' European countries are unable to reproduce at sustainable rates. For a society, no children = no future.

    It is only the wealth and safety of life in the West that give us the illusion that life is about some intellectually fulfilling pursuit and getting what you want from the world. Life is about not dying and reproducing. Everything else is a bonus, not entitlement.

  5. 'The Garbage Generation', by
    Daniel Amneus, which is available for free
    online at:

    describes the long term nefarious consequences of
    feminism and so-called womens' liberation.

    We are currently in a transition phase that takes us back to matriarchy.
    Patriarchy equals civilization; matriarchy equals The Stone Age.
    Patriarchy (and civilization) have only been around for about 5,000 years.
    Before that we had millions of years of being mired in matriarchy with its
    concomitant lack of any technical, cultural, or legal progress.
    All these things and much more were invented by men (not women)
    within a patriarchy, and all these things will disappear with the dissolution of patriarchy.

    An unspoken cornerstone or premise of civilization is the concept of self-restraint or self-discipline whereby one doesn't do whatever one wants (full autonomy)
    but is part of a team, be that 'team' one's family, one's community, one's nation,
    or one's civilization. On a team, everyone has a role to play, be that role breadwinner or nurturer. The roles are not, or should not be, interchangeable
    because some people, or some categories of people (male/female) are more
    suitable for one role than another.

    Just as one cannot learn to play the violin, for example, by doing whatever one
    wants (full autonomy); it takes discipline, years of practice, and yes, sacrifice.

    What we have now are females pretending to be men, but they are second rate
    men at best and many allowances have to be made for them at work and school to maintain the liberal fantasy of equality. Females are much better than males
    at being women: at nurturing and raising children, but again, too many of them
    today (because of massive and constant propaganda from their mass media)
    are too busy at pretending to be men.

    While reading 'The Garbage Generation' I got the sense that many
    of these feminist pied pipers leading females over the cliff of emancipation
    are quite happy with the prospect of a return to matriarchy and all this entails (a much lower standard of living for all of us and an end to civilization).
    However, many of the lemmings being led over the cliff take many things in their civilization for granted, like their cell phones, TVs, cars, as well as non-technological things like a stable
    and fairly impartial legal system (except for 'Family Law') that enables commerce
    etc. They might be aghast to learn that all this will come to an end
    and their behaviour is contributing towards this end.
    Although the most likely response will be denial of the forthcoming consequences by most who can't see this as a transition phase back
    to extreme poverty and The Stone Age.

  6. happy revolutionary touches on a delicate fulcrum where it is "ok" for women to be homemakers but at the same time they should have a choice in what they do in life. As has been pointed out here, this is something of a contradiction. Where is the line between allowance and encouragement (or coercion), between a woman's will to shape her life and the pull from a society saturated in feminist progressivism?

    Have not women, at least in the US, been free to make the career choices they wanted? Yes it could not have been easy for a woman to get a PhD pre-1940 but it happened, just as there were women in engineering, chemistry and other male-dominated fields. We're not talking Islam here. One gets the impression on hearing this argument-- that a reasonable feminism only requires the freedom to choose-- that feminists can never be satisfied with a modest number of significant successes of females realizing parity in what have been traditionally the affairs of men. But we know it is not just a numerical problem of outcome. It is a demand for wholesale transformation of society according to a radical ideology that seeks to vanquish asymmetric social order by political means.

    anon said "It is only the wealth and safety of life in the West that give us the illusion that life is about some intellectually fulfilling pursuit and getting what you want from the world. Life is about not dying and reproducing. Everything else is a bonus, not entitlement."

    I hope you are a teacher.

  7. Here's one more feminist who's not exactly comfortable with women choosing motherhood over a full-time career. The female editor of the New Statesman responded to a survey showing that only 13% of British girls wanted to still be working full-time at the age of 40 as follows:

    "Reading the newspapers ... can sometimes be especially demoralising ... sometimes it's the very smallest stories ... that really get you down. So, for instance, the widely reported magazine survey of 3,000 women (average age:28) ... made me bang my head against my desk while gouging my thigh with a compass."

  8. There have been some excellent comments in this thread which I'd like to briefly touch on.

    Jaz put things well in writing that Boycott had kept the same tired furniture, but rearranged it to make things a little more liveable.

    When Rosie B states that "Liberation must always be about being yourself" we know that we are still dealing with a seriously flawed liberalism.

    What if I am, by nature, a lazy, deceptive person? Should I be myself then?

    For traditionalists there exists an objective good for the individual to orient himself toward.

    Yes, Rosie B makes the "be yourself" ethos more manageable for women by no longer rejecting femininity as an oppressive construct.

    It doesn't though overcome the larger flaws within a liberal ethics.

  9. Anonymous (1), I agree that feminists have an advantage in getting themselves heard over more traditional women - they are, after all, much more likely to have committed themselves to careers in politics, the media and the arts.

    For this reason, the voice of opposition to feminism has often been left to those women who started out as feminists, but who in later life had a change of heart.

  10. "I agree that feminists have an advantage in getting themselves heard over more traditional women - they are, after all, much more likely to have committed themselves to careers in politics, the media and the arts."

    Not only that, but having fewer children (usually)they have more time and energy to promote their views.

    It's no wonder they've been able to win the ideological war over conservatives.

    Hopefully the retirement of the baby-boomers will help give traditionalists more space in media and academia to put their case forward.