Books: Two legs good, three legs bad?

Sacred Cows: Is Feminism Relevant to the New Millennium?

by Rosalind Coward

HarperCollins pounds 16.99

Ros Coward's new book seems guaranteed to provoke fury and incomprehension among her feminist colleagues. Coming so soon after Germaine Greer's claim in The Whole Woman that women are still widely discriminated against, it is a scathing attack upon the feminist sisterhood for failing to adapt to what she claims are the problems of its own success. Can feminism continue to be relevant, she asks, if it refuses to address what is now a burgeoning crisis of masculinity? Already, she believes, it is in danger of becoming an "outmoded" and fanatical ideology because it refuses to tolerate dissent either from within its ranks or without.

Coward neatly sets out her case in a chapter entitled "Womanism", in which she examines how feminism has largely demolished the traditional patriarchal structure that she first encountered as a young woman in the early 1970s. Then, as the famous phrase goes, "woman's place was in the wrong", whereas now she insists, "what started as a need to support women's rights ... has become the need to support women because they are right." She even compares the situation with Animal Farm: two legs good, three legs bad.

Those who are reminded of similar claims by other feminist critics such as Fay Weldon and Camille Paglia may begin to wonder how a movement which is supposedly so monolithic manages to generate so much back-stabbing and in-fighting. And yet Coward's book positively bubbles over with frustration at the feminist establishment's refusal to accept what she insists are "the changing realities" of Nineties sexual politics.

Much of her book is, in fact, an analysis of the confusing question of male identity. In a series of chapters with titles such as "Male Loss", "Whipping Boys" and "The Full Monty", she displays an acute sensitivity towards the problems of male depression, suicide and unemployment. Feminists have tended to react to these developments either with scorn or misjudged triumphalism, as, for instance, when Polly Toynbee wrote last year: "If you are hearing men's cry of pain, don't listen."

But Coward argues that middle-class men are no less to blame for colluding in feminism's excesses. Very often, she maintains, they desperately try to prove their liberal credentials by engaging in acts of what she calls "genial masochism". Examples of this proliferate in the media, from television programmes such as Men Behaving Badly to books such as Fever Pitch and advertisements depicting men as stupid, useless and morally inferior. Now everywhere one looks one seems to be confronted with a grotesque parody of masculinity that bares no relation to its more troubled reality.

Contrary to what one might expect, though, Coward is no less critical of the inchoate UK Men's Movement, which she describes as the "mirror- image" of womanism. In a rousing piece of old-fashioned class analysis she points to the way both feminists and masculinists now blame social break-down on society's most vulnerable members. The men's movement's focus of attack is single mothers, while feminists condemn the lad culture of young, unemployed men. Coward fumes at the cravenness with which a movement originally supposed to undermine traditional bastions of male power now attacks the least powerful men in society.

Yet despite the acuity with which she skewers both men's and women's groups, a number of flaws remain in her own central argument. For one thing, what are we to make of the astonishing claim that women now have the option of getting "equal pay for equal work" and of attaining "financial independence"? Coward relies heavily on recent research which showed that only a quarter to a third of mothers wanted to pursue full-time careers, to explain why women still earn 20 per cent less than men. But what she doesn't take into account are the myriad ways in which they are still discriminated against in the workplace. Surprisingly, Coward omits any mention of the evolutionary, anthropological, historical factors which might shed more light on this question.

In fact, one of the fundamental problems with Sacred Cows is that one could easily reach the opposite conclusion to Coward's, namely that feminism hasn't gone far enough. She never fully explains, for instance, why most men still define themselves solely as breadwinners, and therefore why the pressures of masculinity have actually intensified. Could it have something to do with women's sexual desire and man's role as breadwinner? Would the man with the naked torso in the Diet Coke ad still be as attractive if he were standing in a Job Centre, not a building site?

At present we seem to have what could be described as a half- finished revolution, with hand-to-hand combat taking place in offices throughout the land. Rampant discrimination, albeit often subtly disguised, is commonplace in the media. At the BBC, for instance, quips about men only being good for sex and DIY are routine in some departments. On the other hand, the top jobs still consistently go to men, as the recent appointment of the Director- General confirmed. Not one woman was on the shortlist. For all of Coward's emphasis on masculine confusion, one could say there still isn't enough of it at the very top of the tree.

Nor is there anything in her book about encouraging men to participate in the debate. Should they, for instance, be goaded into campaigning more for paternity leave, custody rights and health care? Or do we need a cooling- off period where the sexes can learn to live with each other again? Nevertheless, by exposing the absurd idea that either sex will ever be free of the gender straitjacket unless the other one is too, Ros Coward has produced possibly the most radical work of feminism for years. Sacred Cows is an indispensable reminder of how inextricably men and women are intertwined, and how vital they are in shaping each others' lives.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions