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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.