New Feminism? Not while we have Old Misogyny
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 01 March 1998
At this point, I stifled an urge to scream. The New Feminism is pretty much like New Labour, which is to say an anodyne version of ideas we are already familiar with, but with the radical bits lopped off. Both ideologies, to give them a grander title than they deserve, share a disdain for the past and and an obsession with youth, defining characteristics of fin de siecle anxiety. Except that this time round we're suffering from something even worse, the usual final-decade-of-the-century malaise spiced up with a severe outbreak of pre-millennial tension.
In the 1890s, people went around identifying the New Drama, the New Art, the New Woman - although they didn't much like her - to the point where satirists began to talk wearily about the New Newness. The parallels with our own fin de siecle are so close that I wasn't entirely surprised to get a call from another journalist who wanted to interview me about the New Misogyny. "I suppose," he said, anticipating my response, "you're going to say it's not much different from the old sort." Precisely. Although I do have some thrilling ideas about the New Novelty, if anyone would care to take me out to lunch.
ON THE subject of fin de siecle anxiety, last week produced a fine example in the vote by the MCC to continue the ban on admitting "ladies" to membership. In the 1890s commentators worried about men and women becoming more alike; in the 1990s, there are still quite a few men who want to maintain the last remaining barriers. Ever since the result was announced, embarrassed committee members have been trying to explain that it was really a victory for women, in that 55 per cent of the membership was in favour - the committee just didn't get the two-thirds majority needed to change the rules. The MCC president, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, said he was "heartened" by the result - he is in favour of the change - and explained that the antis were worried that women would "overwhelm the males in the Long Room".
Given that any "lady" applying for membership would have to join an 18- year queue, this seems a feeble argument. It's also, I'm afraid, the kind of thing supporters of apartheid in South Africa used to say about black people. I've suggested before in this column that there's something - how shall I put it? - weird about people who play cricket. I'm tempted to say, in view of the fact that 5,538 members of the MCC have shown themselves terminally scared of women, that I rest my case.
I'M NOT sure whether Hounslow council in West London is suffering from pre-millennial tension or sheer insanity. What I do know is that, sometime this summer, it intends to ban half the people who live in my street from parking outside our houses. Hounslow is introducing restrictions which mean we will have to leave our cars elsewhere and walk home - and that includes my neighbour Mary Spear, widow of the distinguished artist Ruskin Spear, who is in her eighties and can barely get about because of her arthritis.
This bizarre proposal, which will ban us from our own road from Monday to Saturday, applies only to one side of the street. The people who live on the other side are being offered residents' parking permits which, for pounds 75 a year, will allow them to park for as long as they like. The fact that they don't need them - unlike us, they already have off-street parking - is irrelevant. The point is that they live in Hounslow. Our houses are in Hammersmith & Fulham, even though we step into Hounslow as soon as we open our garden gates.
So, says Hounslow, you can all go and park somewhere else - even if you have heavy shopping, small children or a disability. Our MP, Iain Coleman, has condemned this decision as "ridiculous" but Hounslow council is unmoved. It doesn't even answer my letters, presumably because I live in Hammersmith and count as a non-person. So is Mary, who was horrified to discover when she telephoned the council that the disabled parking bay outside her house, where she currently leaves her car, is to be taken away when the scheme is implemented.
When we raised the question of women arriving home alone late at night, we were told we should park on a yellow line, get up each morning and move our cars to Hammersmith - assuming we can find anywhere to leave them during the rush hour. What this reminds me of is those old East European states which built filthy power stations on their borders, not giving a damn about the effect on their neighbours. As far as Hounslow is concerned, we're Poles and they're East Germans.
I suppose it will lend us a sort of distinction, as the only people for miles around who have to get taxis home from their cars. For Mary, though, the prospect is dire. She can barely walk to the corner shop unaided and the scheme may force her to move from the studio which has been her home for 20 years, and where her late husband painted the politicians Rab Butler and Harold Wilson. These days, of course, given the intransigence of Labour-controlled Hounslow, even a visiting prime minister would have to finish his journey on foot.
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