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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.