Where are we now?

WHO'S AFRAID OF FEMINISM? Seeing Through the Backlash ed Ann Oakley & Juliet Mitchell, Hamish Hamilton pounds 20

So what is the story about feminism in the late Nineties? A relic of the Sixties, still banging on about ideas which have no relevance to women in the post-feminist era? A pernicious doctrine whose tentacles have strangled family life as we used to know it, and alienated men into the bargain? A movement torn apart by internal inconsistencies and whose stars are frequently at each others' throats?

For Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell, whose project of assessing the current state of feminism dates back more than two decades, the answer is more complicated than any of these popular generalisations. We are, they concede, living through a period of "backlash" - a term popularised by the American writer Susan Faludi and borrowed for the subtitle of their new volume. But Oakley and Mitchell remain uncertain as to "whether the backlash is against women or against feminism". This is not as arcane a distinction as it seems, but a conscious attempt to steer a middle ground between dismissing the achievements of feminism out of hand and wildly overestimating them.

A good example, which Juliet Mitchell and Jack Goody take on in this book, is the setting up of the Child Support Agency. The violent protest against it was fuelled by a sense on the part of aggrieved men that they were the victims of a feminist-inspired plot. Yet many of the single mothers it was supposed to help felt that the organisation's aim had more to do with balancing the government's books than relieving their financial plight. Picking their way through these conflicting simplifications, Mitchell and Goody argue that "women who are coping for better or worse without men are labelled `feminist man-haters' in a culture which finds threatening the independence of the conventionally weak and dependent" - an ironic response in view of early feminist demands that fathers should "share in child care, involving them in, not ejecting them from, the family".

This kind of reasoned argument, and the sense of historical context which informs it, is both the strength and weakness of this book. Its judgements tend to be sound, but they are couched in language which does not excite the reader, reinforcing the impression that contemporary feminism has split not so much into warring factions - the libertarian Camille Paglia vs the anti-porn crusader Catherine Mackinnon, say - as into two types of discourse which have nothing to say to one another.

These are, broadly, the confessional outpourings of writers like Naomi Wolf and Nancy Friday and the measured, occasionally opaque utterances of academic feminism as embodied by Mitchell (lecturer in Gender and Society at Cambridge University and professor-at-large at Cornell) and Oakley (professor of sociology and social policy at the University of London Institute of Education). As far as Wolf and Friday are concerned, the old feminist slogan "the personal is political" seems to have transmogrified into "only the personal is political" - a dismaying descent from the realm of ideas into thinly-disguised autobiography. Yet their books reach a wide audience and effectively hijack the terms of the debate, narrowing it down to an angry and anguished account of individual slights and personal grievances.

There is little in these populist volumes to excite the reader in the way that The Female Eunuch or Kate Millett's Sexual Politics managed to do; Wolf, Friday, Katie Roiphe et al leave the territory of ideas wide open for more heavyweight players. Yet, in spite of its snappy title, the contributors to Who's Afraid of Feminism? have for the most part chosen to employ a stilted vocabulary whose effect is precisely the opposite of the great 1960s and 1970s polemics - it makes an exciting and explosive subject, the changing power-relations between men and women, appear dull and boring. This is compounded by a chapter-list which appears to be motivated more by a sense of duty than by its subversive potential. There are lots of problems, whether it is the difficulties facing single mothers or those of the recently- out lesbian, and very little about what happens to pleasure and desire at a historical moment antipathetic to feminism.

One of the perils of the backlash, as Mitchell and Oakley are no doubt aware, is that we become ensnared in the terms of our opponents' discourse - and infected by their pessimism. It is this trap which, for all its good intentions, their new volume narrowly fails to avoid.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century