Books: She wants to sunbathe topless with the Folletts
Sunday 14 February 1999
ed Natasha Walter Virago pounds 9.99
What Do Women Want? Power, Sex, Bread & Roses by Erica Jong Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is "Was will das Weib?". Freud's plaintive confession to Marie Bonaparte - "What does Woman want?" - has dogged decades of feminism. With its monolithic concept of Woman as representative of all her kind, it belongs to an ancient tradition of gnomic grumblings by male commentators, sadly shaking their heads over the mysterious Other and her illogical behaviour. Like the misogynous sayings of the Church Fathers, Freud's conundrum deserves to be discredited and firmly set aside, a task that is splendidly undertaken by the writers in Natasha Walter's new collection, . Instead of costive Woman, we get women, unified by sex, but multifarious in background, experience, expectation and ambition, and eloquent in speaking out for what they want.
Since the glory days of the Sixties, the women's movement has been through a series of ideological metamorphoses, from the popular credo that "the personal is the political" to the less universally appealing dogma that any woman who engaged in heterosexual activity was a traitor to the cause. As the movement expanded, ideas about politically correct behaviour proliferated, creating easy targets for media ridicule: all those cartoons of egregiously overweight women in dungarees, with slogan badges pinned to their baggy T-shirts, are a painful case in point.
By the early Nineties, the term "feminist" had become a dirty word for many women. Following some 30 years of change and turmoil, Walter's project was hearteningly simple: to find out what relevance feminism still has for what she calls the new generation - women growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
There is nothing homogeneous about the essays and interviews in this book, except that what Walter defines as a "lack of complacency" and the "desire to build a better society in which men and women are more equal". Casting her net wide, she solicited articles and interviews from women who differ widely in background, class, political persuasion and ethnic group. Their subject matter is equally varied. In a provocative essay, "The Personal is Still Political", Katharine Viner attacks the media double standard that denounces the sexually proactive Monica Lewinsky as a "randy little minx" (Alan Clark in the London Evening Standard), while routinely expecting intelligent young actresses and TV presenters (Helen Baxendale, Zoe Ball, Ulrika Jonsson) to pose half-naked and titillatingly vulnerable in Esquire and Loaded. Helen Wilkinson, brought up in a working- class Labour family in North Wales, unexpectedly praises Margaret Thatcher for giving women a role model who actively relished and exploited power: "We are all ... power feminists now." In an essay crammed with useful data, Oona King, the second black woman MP in Britain, spells out exactly why we still need feminism. Her global perspective - "women today make up half the world's population, yet do two-thirds of its work, receive only one- tenth of its income, and own less than 1 per cent of world property" - is tagged by her personal experience as a Labour MP, where she is all too often the sole woman at meetings of 20-odd people to decide issues that crucially affect women: good parenting, new bus routes, the provision of health care, and so on.
Walter's refreshing openness to diversity embraces testimony from the activist Julie Bindel, whose campaign against violence towards women has helped to revolutionise media attitudes. Stephanie Theobald writes wittily and with uncomfortable honesty about the experiences of lesbian feminists. Jenny McLeod opens an unexpected window on the struggles of first- and second-generation immigrant West Indian women. Aminatta Forna and Livi Michael remind us that however much feminism may have done for middle-class females, there are huge numbers of less privileged women "for whom," in Michael's words, "all the reforms brought about by Feminism ... might as well not exist".
One of the most appealing features of the collection is the series of short interviews with teenage girls that runs through the book, linking and illuminating the longer contributions in sometimes surprising ways. What all these young women share is a sense of the importance of standing up for themselves: for their right to work, to have economic and social parity with men, to speak and to be heard. Helen Simpson's short story, "Lentils and Lilies", offers an ironic gloss on the discrepancy between youthful optimism and female adult reality. In the context of these confident young voices, it seems like a throwback to the sad, bad old days. Thank you, Karen, Julia, Erica, Caroline and Momtaz: you persuaded me that feminism has finally come of age.
Despite its promising title, Erica Jong's What Do Women Want: Power, Sex, Bread & Roses is something of a letdown. This is not entirely Jong's fault. The book brings together a selection of her journalism published in periodicals such as the Boston Globe and the Times Literary Supplement, and now loosely grouped into sections. "Power", described by Jong as tracking some of the changes that have occurred between men and women over the past 25 years, muses pleasantly but conventionally on such chestnuts as the mother-daughter relationship and woman as witch, and includes Jong's intelligent introduction to a new edition of Jane Eyre. More up to date and pithy is her account of failing to obtain a one-to-one with the elusive Hillary Clinton, whom, surprisingly, Jong criticises for her intellectual control and individuality: "She does not convince us of her everydayness." Given Jong's theoretical support for womanpower, this seems, at best, inconsistent. "Sex" includes an interesting essay on Lolita 30 years on, and is thought-provoking on pornography, which Jong sees as a necessary outlet for artistic fantasy and play. The section ends on a slighter note with three pages on Bill Clinton's penis: "Have we forgotten that the President is the alpha male of the tribe, and the alpha male gets the youngest and the most nubile females with or without foreplay?" "Bread & Roses" - the author at work and play - rhapsodises inconsequentially about holidays in Italy (topless sunbathing with the Folletts and other Labour luvvies), but is persuasive about Jong's love of poetry, and includes some polished reflections on the relationship between writers and their houses.
What the collection doesn't tell us is what women want. Instead we get rather a lot about what Erica Jong wants, and I fear that any one of Walter's perceptive young critics would denounce feminism's erstwhile grande dame as somewhat out of touch. This is a pity since Jong's principal claim to fame as a feminist was her courage to speak out about female sexual fantasy and experience before such confessions became commonplace. She has subsequently proved herself to be a hard-working writer and critic, and her essays deserve to be read and evaluated as the pickings of a lifetime's contribution to Grub Street. As a "vision" of the "new millennial sexual politics", they simply don't add up.
On the subject of presentation, the jacket images for both these books are unaesthetic and even sexist. On the Move flaunts a gaping, glossy mouth: feminist rant meets soft porn. Jong's graphics are even worse, with "Sex" represented by a (packaged) female condom and "Power" a vampish, T-strap shoe. Really? Are contraceptives and (to borrow a phrase) "fuck- me" shoes still the summit of female aspiration in personal and public life? Both publishers have gone in for a modish - and irritating - loss of capital letters: erica jong and on the move, as if breaking stylistic conventions confirms liberation from old-fashioned patriarchal constraint.
Far more convincing are the essays in Walter's terrific collection. Read them and learn what women really want: their fair share of the economic and social cake. Are you listening, Sigmund Freud?
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