Leading Article: Feminism is still a cause to fight for
Saturday 30 January 1999
It should also be accepted that women still have a long way to go before they can regard the battle for true equality as won. That is more controversial. There has been a backlash among men, not simply of the laddish and Loaded variety, but also of the confused and defensive kind (are the two kinds by any chance related?). There has been something of a backlash on the female side, too, epitomised by Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal, though heavily offset by a knowing, post-feminist irony. Revolutionary fervour among true believers has dimmed too, as the battle has moved from the fierce passions of the applecart-upsetters and academics into the more complex field of popular culture, infiltrating the ways in which the vast majority of people live day to day.
The struggle is still being carried on in the prosaic theatres of the industrial tribunals; the labour market has been transformed, and yet the glass ceilings still have only a few skylights in them. There is only one woman - Marjorie Scardino - heading a FTSE 100 company, for example. On the other hand, the Government this week lived up to its responsibility with a Bill to promote "fairness at work" that sought to encourage the further feminisation of the workplace. Much of the family-friendly presentation was spin, but it is significant that what would once have been regarded as strident demands for the impossible should now be seen as feel-good public relations. And, however modest, the measures for unpaid parental leave for fathers and longer maternity leave for mothers will make a real difference.
Feminism has left its mark on the English language: the style book for this newspaper insists on "firefighter" and tries to avoid "he" as a general singular pronoun. That change is hardly complete, either, but the cutting edge has gone, leaving us with the partially accepted "Ms" and a lot of pointless confusion. This week, for example, Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons, required Nick Gibb, a Conservative MP, to apologise for describing Dawn Primarolo, a Treasury minister, as a "stupid woman". Mr Gibb may be a stupid man, if that is the best insult he can dredge from his limited vocabulary, but to say so is absolutely not to insult the 48 per cent of the population who are male.
How, then, is feminism to be carried forward from this stalemate of unfinished business? The important point is that carrying on the torch is not women's burden alone - those who are looking for the "new Germaine Greer" may be looking for spokespeople (no, that is not approved by The Independent style book) of the wrong sex. This is not simply a matter of the strange inversion by which the only people who call themselves feminists these days seem to be men. It has become a commonplace to observe that men are increasingly demanding, or in some cases simply assuming, more responsibility for bringing up their children - often the same men who have strutted their New Lad political incorrectness, the same men who complain that women's rights have "gone too far".
Long after the slogan was coined in Professor Greer's heyday, "the personal is political", the full implications of that are working through. If women are to achieve meaningful equality of status and respect, they have to renegotiate the whole web of intimate relationships that make up a society, and the cultural assumptions governing them. So the battle has necessarily moved far beyond the simple slogans and ideological certainties of the early days. Some of the obstacles to true equality have turned out to be as intractable as they were unexpected. It has turned out not to be so easy for working parents to leave their children in the care of others, for example, and the fear of child sex abuse has meant that men can never be as trusted as women in the caring role. It will not be for a few charismatic leaders to negotiate the hazardous route; the torch of feminism will be carried forward by millions of people, both men and women. Happy birthday, Germaine.
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