Books: Reclaiming the F-word

THE NEW FEMINISM by Natasha Walter, Little, Brown pounds 17.50
FEMINISM IS rather like the modern novel. Pundits keep on pronouncing it dead but it won't lie down. For some, it's a badly dressed ghoul gibbering, hatred and envy. For others it's the reincarnation of a goddess warning of impending ecological disaster. For Natasha Walter, feminism seems to be like the phoenix, dying in the fire only to be reborn brighter and more powerful. In this forceful and accessible book, clearly aimed at women (and men) in their twenties who need convincing that feminism is not old hat, she outlines a female politics of pleasurable survival in the complex modern arena of business and technology. The point is not to change the world so much as to concentrate on what's possible. Walter argues for a feminism that's pragmatic, materialist, men-friendly, and concerned with the world of work rather than with culture and sex. For those who like to see feminists as castrating harridans, this is perhaps asking too much. For those who believe women are still caught in the patriarchal web, it's probably asking too little.

Feminism, Walter believes, suffers from an image problem. The young people she talked to were independent, ambitious, and confident of their equality with each other, but they balked at being called feminists. Thirty years of media vilification of threatening viragos, unlovable and lonely, had done the trick. Yet, simultaneously, Walter's interviewees insisted on their rights to earn good money, to share childcare with the opposite sex, and to be defined as "insiders" not as rebels. These young, middle- class women have grown up in a culture that tells them they can and should have it all. They don't dare complain, you feel. Back in the Seventies, we could talk about oppression. Today, you'll be accused of whinging. Mustn't grumble ... Walter's solution to this is to cite many examples of powerful individual women whose lives are dramatically different from their mothers', who are optimistic rather than embattled, who can embrace both traditional femininity (pretty clothes and speaking nicely) and feminist ideals of equality with men. Walter's feminism is adamant that you do not have to be a socialist, and welcomes Conservative women into its ranks, but her beliefs are rooted in the Marxist notion that changes in material circumstances are crucial in the fight for justice. She calls hers a "solid, unimpeachable bourgeois revolution". The new feminism sounds rather like New Labour: we're all middle-class now. That's the answer to the vexing problem of the way that class and money can divide women even as the experience of discrimination can unite us. Walter is critical of the way that Seventies feminism foundered on the politics of identity, which she feels stressed the differences between women rather than the similarities, but she doesn't quite grasp the unfashionable nettle of class strongly enough. On the one hand, she devotes a generous chapter to praising the struggles of women not in flash media jobs. On the other hand, she quotes a development consultant as saying: "I refuse to fill any stereotypical feminine role at work. I won't do much clerical work." Yes, but someone has to and that's what the working class is for, right?

We used to believe that it wasn't the job itself which was demeaning but the conditions under which it was performed. Cleaning lavs and wiping babies' bottoms was not degrading, but being despised as an unpaid dependent was. Now that housework is included in the GNP, men can see that it is productive, and so are more willing to help do it. Clerical work, too, could be re-valued.

The sweet core of Walter's book combines her gracefully expressed gratitude to the older generation of feminists with her open-eyed welcome of man into the brave new world. There always was a libertarian, carnivalesque strand of feminism which included enjoying playing with both girls and boys, but this got hidden behind the angry outbursts of those hurt by men. Now, young men brought up to understand feminism as normal and desirable can choose to opt out of patriarchal attitudes and join with women, sharing childcare, enjoying more time with their families, doing flexitime, not defining themselves solely as breadwinners. This hopeful and idealistic vision is characteristic of Walter's positive approach: feminism means more fun, not less. Here is a book packed with challenging arguments, provocative statements and clarion calls to action, written with passion, courage and good humour. I found much to disagree with, but I was never bored. Here's feminism as phoenix, and as blazing torch lighting the way to a new century.