How long do we put up with feminists behaving badly?

Why do we always damn men? What's wrong with them beating drums with their mates in the forest?

A VERY dear male friend of mine phoned me in a state of some exasperation this Monday: "Tell me, please. What do you women want? What will satisfy you?" He, as I, had just been listening to the well known feminist writer Lynne Segal on Radio 4's Start the Week. She was describing a paper she is presenting in London this week to celebrate the F-word. Her theme was the real or imagined crisis that is afflicting the male identity.

In the course of the discussion, she dropped in the fact that there had been 400 books written on the subject in the last decade. We were, I think, meant to supply scorn at this evidence of male over-indulgence and attention-seeking.

But why is it so wrong for men to talk and write about what is happening to them in the late 20th century? Or to go out and beat drums with their mates in forests, for that matter? Why do we damn men whatever they do? I felt just as alienated by the tone of the discussion as my friend did.

Please don't get me wrong. Not only are some of my best friends feminists, I unabashedly describe myself as one too. But I increasingly despair of my sort, the well-heeled, well placed metropolitan feminists who presume to tell women and men what they ought to be, and who are so uncompromising and relentlessly hard. I find many of the ideas and views that are propagated in the name of feminism unconvincing and infuriating, because they do not engage with the complexities or altering landscapes of real experiences. I would argue, too, that we have grown so accustomed to comfortable generalisations about men and women that we are now adding to the problems of sexism - real as they are - instead of finding ways of tackling them.

There is no need to go over the empirical evidence which shows us that gender inequalities persist in spite of decades of equal opportunity and equal pay legislation. Male violence against women is all too evident. Too much power still rests with an elite group of white men. But this does not mean that all men are essentially bad, or that men are almost all bad, or that women are, by definition, saints or saviours.

This is terribly difficult to write. I can already hear the accusations from the sisterhood. Another traitor, they will say, another soldier joining the backlash. This is why many women I know keep their silence. They, too, feel uneasy and, at times, angry about the dishonesty, the unfairness and the hypocrisy that have contaminated discourse about the status of men and women in this country.

Look clearly at the issues of the family, relationships, work and identity and you find just how much has been transformed for many people in this country. You find, too, that it is not as easy as it once was to categorise power, equality, access and values in terms of gender difference. And yet many of our feminist commentators insist on disregarding progress and turning away from uncomfortable realities.

Take the vocal women who have written off the New Man as a figment of our hopes. Some New Men do exist, and they make wonderful friends, lovers and fathers. You see it most of all in the way they parent their children. Watching many such fathers and their children - the openly displayed love and physical affection, the pride, the gentle conversations - it is hard to remember that even 20 years ago such intimacy between a father and a child would have been impossible. This week, an Asian man, Sumar Chakrabarti, became the first senior non-white appointee in the Cabinet Office. He has taken the job, but on condition that he can leave work at 5.15pm so that he can look after his three-year-old daughter in the evening.

Now, instead of due credit being given him for doing what so many of us have been asking for, all I have heard so far are gripes about how he gets these advantageous conditions because he is a man. This is nonsense. Men find it much harder to get time off work to look after children than women do. If they have female bosses, especially those who have had no children, the response to their requests is often hostile. Feminists never discuss how women bosses can and do bully workers and keep down other women. Just talk to black nurses in the National Health Service and listen to their stories of how many white senior nurses treat them.

At a personal level, too, we avoid the ugly side to the feminine character. When will we condemn women (including strident feminists) who encourage men to betray their long-term partners and walk out on their children? Monica and Gaynor were not simply objects, to be manipulated. Will Carling didn't leave the mother of his infant child to go off on a drunken spree with Gazza. He went off with another woman.

Do these women have no responsibilities? Is part of the feminist rush to condemn the cads just to avoid that question? The discredited arguments of the personal not being the political can no longer be used. We, as women need to stop debasing other women if our political principles have any meaning at all.

So do I not blame men at all any more? Of course I do. Too many men become wonderful new fathers but end up old bastards, rushing off with some nymphet who brings youth, red lips and endless promises of all night sex. Too many men with power are actively hostile to the progress of women. Too many violate the rights of women. But we cannot let these facts paralyse action or stifle optimism. It is absurd to insist that men must be perfect while we continue to deny the imperfections of women.

Nor is it helpful to keep looking for signs of regression. Yes, some young men are buying Loaded and tuning into Men Behaving Badly. But that is hardly proof that we are moving back into the caves.

Men are tired, too, of being told that they are not needed (except for DIY and sex, as another newspaper columnist put it), but that they must still live up to impossibly high standards. They are confused about whether they should be properly masculine or vaguely feminine and they are worried, too, that whatever choices they make, we will react only with contempt.

In the future - if there is to be a future here on Earth and not separately on Mars and Venus - we will have to be content that all that is possible is change; uneven, slow, difficult change in the way men and women behave towards one another. And that good things come out of small steps.

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