Monday Book: A skewed take on feminism

ON THE MOVE: FEMINISM FOR A NEW GENERATION EDITED BY NATASHA WALTER VIRAGO, pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS COLLECTION of essays claims that "it may come as quite a shock" to realise that young women from their teens to their early thirties are "still so passionate about feminism". The claim requires some qualification. For a start, the contributors to On the Move are hardly representative of young women today. Apart from MP Oona King, the remaining eight adults, plus the editor, are successful journalists or writers; the five teenagers, aged 15 to 18, are editors at the news agency, Children's Express, with privileged experience of the national media. Their backgrounds can sometimes skew their take on feminism.

The media presentation of women bulks large. Katherine Viner and Aminatta Forna rightly criticise the Page 3 antics of high-profile personalities like Ulrika Jonsson and Anthea Turner. But irritating as such self-promotion is, whether it is "empowering" or not is a trivial issue beside the 1.4m women in Britain who earn less than the proposed minimum wage. As Oona King shows, women still account for most of the world's poorest people.

A professional woman's bias is clearest in Helen Wilkinson's essay. It celebrates Margaret Thatcher as a power-feminist role model and creator of free-market feminism. Bully for the Nicola Horlicks of this world, but their exceptional success does nothing in itself to alter structures in which female oppression shores up male privilege. Transforming these structures has been the central project of political feminism. Of course, different analyses have produced different feminisms, but none of them boils down to the demand that some women should be as rich and powerful as some men.

Wilkinson slates feminists for seeing the glass as half-empty when they point out that the vaunted "feminisation of labour" consists of low-paid casual or part-time jobs. Instead, she stresses women's advance in the professions, in self-employment and in the "DIY culture of self-promotion". She even acclaims the loss of manufacturing jobs and erosion of union power as gains for feminism, because women have become breadwinners in many working-class families. Quoting Charlotte Raven, Oona King writes: "Half-full is plenty - as long as you don't have to share it with anyone else".

The teenagers share Wilkinson's stance. They all think that feminism (meaning "equality") has largely been achieved; that they will have professional careers minus sexual discrimination; and that there will be no problem combining this with motherhood. Almost all are anxious to distance themselves from bra-burners, dykes and man-haters. How seriously should we take them? They are a self-selected coterie, their contributions cobbled together from answers in peer interviews to seemingly identical questions. They also tend to tell their interlocutors what they think they want to hear, parroting slogans picked up from home, school and the media.

It's hard not to feel that these girls have swallowed the fourth estate's line that feminism has won and women can have it all. They seem most personal and poignant when talking about their families, and the families they hope for. Although "housewife" is a dirty word, all want children, but insist on two parents "married for life". Even feisty women earning enough to employ nannies and cleaners will be hard put to make that dream come true.

By contrast, other contributions prove that feminism still has political force. Julie Bindel's piece is outstanding. In a critical history of her involvement as a working-class lesbian in the women's movement since 1979, she shows how feminist campaigners now build coalitions with other groups in campaigns against male violence, using the very media which distorted and dissipated political feminism. Justice for Women, founded by Bindel, was instrumental in freeing Sara Thornton and Emma Humphreys.

As Stephanie Theobald's witty essay on lesbians shows, other fronts remain untouched by the "genderquake". In Livi Michael's harrowing portrayal of the new poverty of single unemployed mothers, Thatcherite economic policy is the main culprit. But Livi Michael also argues that it has encouraged middle-class complacency: social justice is no longer a feminist issue.

The book's message, however, remains determinedly upbeat - even if we are all qualifying ourselves now as power feminists, new feminists, post- feminists or even feminists who can't or won't say they're feminists. It's oddly reminiscent of New Labour: compare Tony Blair's notion that we're all middle-class now, and the coy retreat from socialism to "social- ism". Of course, the claim to newness is not only spin, but a staple ploy for generating copy. The problem is that it can both mask and unwittingly promote the anti-feminist backlash.

At its worst, new feminism suggests "femin-ism", a courtesy hyphen for those who are no longer radical, or never were, to dress up the joys of sex and shopping as right-on politics. The new generation of women needs some hard analysis, and more awareness of feminism's history.

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