What feminism offers men

  • @natasha_walter
STOP PRESS! Feminists recant! Few things can be more delightful, in the eyes of the right-wing press, than an erstwhile feminist who has now decided that the time for liberation is over, and the time for backlash has begun. There is Fay Weldon, who still gets trotted out as a feminist even though she has been known to say: "Men are the new victims now." There is Maggie Gee, who is probably still a feminist, but who gave a long interview last week to mourn the fact that "female sexism has been legitimated", which was headlined "Has a feminist turned?" And now there is Rosalind Coward, who is publishing a book next week called Sacred Cows, in which she explains how she became "disenchanted with the idea of being a feminist".

And the reason that all these women give for their change of heart is the same: men. They cite male suicide, male unemployment, male dissociation from the family and the absence of viable male heroes as reasons for chucking feminism. Rosalind Coward, whose book makes a superficially compelling case, argues that while women now have the glorious constellations of girl power by which to sail their ships, men are drowning, unable to find any direction. She argues that while her daughter has a valid goal in simply finding employment - "It doesn't even matter what job she does, her status will be enhanced just by becoming a working woman" - her son is unsure whether anything will enhance his life, now that "the moral status of masculinity has completely gone".

Can we see these individual recantations as part of a wider movement? The death of feminism has been proclaimed repeatedly for over 200 years, and I think it's still rather soon for Coward to start the funeral. For a start, I wish I could be as sure as she is that women are the newly advantaged sex, trampling with their kitten heels on men's prone bodies. Girl power hasn't yet got men on the run. I picked up one newspaper on Saturday to find that they had drawn a useful little chart of Greg Dyke's network. There they all were - John Birt, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Melvyn Bragg - just one woman among all 16 of them. While a cabal of besuited men still runs this country, we can't claim that girl power is much more than a slogan.

Of course, if you concentrate, as Coward does, on successful middle-class women's lives, she's right to say that feminism has gone great guns, putting some women today in a different universe from the one that their mothers or grandmothers inhabited. But feminists should look behind the flashy success of a few individual women. It's important to look at the lives of all women. And to recognise that as long as, for instance, three times as many women as men earn under pounds 4 an hour, there are still women's interests to be fought for. If Coward had talked to some of those women, or to some of the young women who start families at 16 or younger because they can't think of anything else to do, or to women who are dealing with domestic violence in the absence of state-funded refuges, she might not state so blithely that everyone's daughters are now better off than everyone's sons.

And yet Rosalind Coward, Maggie Gee and Fay Weldon have a point when they say that the time for a feminism that always pits all women against all men is over. Why should we line up, women on one side, men on the other, blocking each other's paths rather than moving forward together? At a time when many men are suffering from unemployment and disaffection, isn't it out of place to blame all men for the problems that women face? We should be able to distinguish between a system that tends to advantage men, and the individual men who may not have won out even in that system. If feminism were really as Coward describes it, simply intent on demonising all men, then Coward would be right - it should be chucked.

But feminism isn't usually like that. Not any more - if it ever was. The arguments of Germaine Greer, who believes that "men are freaks of nature... doomed to injustice not merely towards females, but towards children, animals and other men", are not typical of today's generation of feminists. The rhetoric, and the action, of feminists have changed enormously over the last decades, and nowhere more clearly than in their attitudes to men. I was struck recently, at a seminar on feminism held at the House of Commons, to hear older feminists talking about the need for "gender warfare". A couple of the younger women present took on their elders, and argued that they saw many men as potential allies rather than inevitable enemies.

And feminists have certainly begun to stop pathologising male sexuality. However fiercely they may campaign for an end to society's tolerance of sexual and domestic violence, how many women would now argue, as it felt right to do in the past, that "rape is the means by which all men keep all women in a state of fear"? Magazines no longer call, as Spare Rib did in 1987, for a national campaign for the use of castration. Women are no longer asked to feel guilty if they are happy loving and living with men. The main reason that Coward wants to get rid of feminism is because she thinks that feminists can't deal with the idea that individual men may not be oppressive to individual women, especially in sexual relations. Feminists, she asserts, "refuse to face up to the possibility of men's vulnerability or of female potency". But this view of feminism today is utterly wrong-headed. Lynne Segal's Straight Sex, Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire and Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae all face up to the possibility of men's vulnerability and female potency.

Now that feminism is beginning to work, this is not the time to chuck it. Far from being embarrassed about the successes that feminists have won, we should build on them. Of course, those successes come at the expense of men's indefensible advantages - if we are going to fight for equal pay, then men won't have the financial power over women that they once had; if we are going to fight against domestic violence, then men won't feel free to beat women up any more.

But in other ways feminism's successes offer men opportunities as well as threats. A more equal society should mean that men have more access to the joys as well as the tedium of domestic life; it means that men may be freed from the burden as well as the status of being the sole breadwinner.

Although many young men are feeling threatened by the gains of feminism, others are sounding energised. Next week also sees the publication of Tony Parsons' new novel, Man and Boy, which is only the latest of a string of novels and memoirs in which young male writers engage with the changes in their lives - in Parsons' case, a situation that he knows at first hand, bringing up his own child after the departure of his wife. It's a lightweight book with a lightweight narrator - he is, much of the time, an ordinary, narrow-minded bloke who mourns the loss of the status and certainties that his father had. But even he eventually comes to look with some optimism into a future in which men can learn to love their children and partners in a different way, and he finds surprising joy in his domestic responsibilities.

It is feminism that has given men this opening into another world. Although the loss of traditional patriarchy may sometimes weigh on some men, many other men, both middle-class and working-class, are finding ways to live that they never expected, and that bring happiness as well as depression.

I hate the idea that Rosalind Coward and Fay Weldon promulgate, that feminism can only rip men up, can only force them down. Should we see feminism as total war against men, or should we see it as a movement towards equality in which women will sometimes fight and sometimes work with men? We don't need to chuck feminism. We do need a new kind of feminism that sees the possibility for rapprochement between the sexes.