Wednesday Book: From feminism to womanism

  • @Melissa_Benn


ONE OF the more irritating aspects of contemporary publishing is its obsession with the provocative, over-simplified thesis. It's as if publishers believe no reader can concentrate long enough to consider the complex connection between past and present, success and failure, but must always be seduced with neat endings or born-again beginnings - of socialism, feminism or history itself.

Sadly, Ros Coward, a writer both complex and richly uncertain, has been persuaded into this marketing trap. As with her last book, Our Treacherous Hearts, this volume promises more than it delivers on the sensation front. Our Treacherous Hearts was not about betrayal: it was an interesting set of reflections on the problems of contemporary middle-class mothers and why they have stopped demanding personal change from middle-class men.

Similarly, Sacred Cows is not really about the end of feminism - as if one author could arrogantly put such a great social movement to rest - but a series of essays on the new problems and possibilities facing women and men. If it weren't heralded as a startling obituary on the F- word, much would seem familiar, even banal.

Coward takes us through the many achievements of women over the past few decades: greater access to education, new opportunities in work, the elimination of many crasser forms of discrimination. Thus, she can assert, "Women are no longer in the doll's house - permanently limited, infantilised and unhappy because of dependency on men". At the same time, many men - especially working-class men - have lost their old certainty.

So far, so good. Coward is skilled at showing us how out of step political and economic change can be. Just as feminism was reaching its angriest stage in the mid-Eighties, the economic structures sustaining male advantage began to crumble. Similarly, the Nineties, characterised by economic instability in "male" employment areas, have been defined by an unattractive "womanism", with everyone from loud-mouthed liberal columnists to commercially manipulated girl groups crowing about how much better girls are than boys.

Coward carefully charts each move and counter-move in this phony sex war. She is right to find the new womanism distasteful. The Nineties have yielded centre-stage to a particular character type: showy, pleased with herself, and wholly insensitive to anything but her own interests. If, as Coward acidly observes, feminism of an earlier era was powered by a certain kind of "creatively damaged" person, then "womanism" has been driven by its latest variant: the self-satisfied narcissist.

Coward's weakness is to pay too much attention to the wrong sort of writers. When she argues that few feminists show much concern for the fate of young working-class men, she is forgetting the many academic and socialist feminists - such as Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal - who have long argued that men and women have common interests. Similarly, she gives far too much weight to the glib observations of male columnists, and too little to serious thinkers such as Jeffrey Weeks.

But does this awareness of male vulnerability add up to a rejection of feminism? There is something terribly parochial about this argument. In many parts of the world, women remain uneducated, beasts of burden, subject to brute male power.

Even in Britain, Coward reads some of the economic signals wrong. Women's greater role in the flexible labour market is not a sign of power. Most women - particularly mothers - work in part-time, low-paid jobs. Most women still run the private side of life, a huge, shadowy burden of labour that they long for men - and the state - to recognise and share. Despite the new emotional literacy of many men, a large proportion remain, in Coward's own words, "powerful and privileged" - as they always were.

Sacred Cows is a confusing book. It has its heart in the right place, but its eye on the wrong story-line. It muddles up womanism - a diluted market version of feminism - with feminism, a long-term politics of transformation. The questions haunting it have long haunted thoughtful feminists. How do we allow men and women access to a both a fulfilling private life and the pursuit of public goals? Feminism has offered generations of women a new chance to try their talents. How do we sustain those advances?

I read Sacred Cows as a muffled socialist feminist text. Coward has discovered the limitations of a kind of bourgeois feminist triumphalism. She recognises that a society where Julie Burchill and Geri Halliwell reign supreme is a pretty unappealing prospect, especially when a generation of lost young men find no language in which to express their needs. Arrogant womanism is no substitute for social justice, for a set of shared values about what makes a decent society. But our daughters need not a rejection of feminism but a feminism generous enough to see well below the shimmery, sexy surface of things.