Revelations: 'We were sisters. We didn't wonder who was right and who w as wrong'
The Time: 1968 The Place: Elstree, London The Woman : Fay Weldon, novelist
Tuesday 20 January 1998
I sat and listened to the others in my section claim feminists were only protesting because they were so ugly and couldn't get a man! There was no debate. It was just a plot to put these women down. I suddenly realised that I was in the wrong part of the hall, so I got up and crossed over to the area where their very, very few supporters sat. At a time when men's behaviour to women was peculiarly bad, I was just furious about how these women were being insulted.
For the first time I noticed the savagery that was automatically flung at any woman who dared to challenge the system and it took my breath away. These feminists were early martyrs to a cause and I thought if they believe it so strongly I should find out more. The effect of that physical and intellectual move was like dominoes through my life; one by one the contradictions would fall and topple the next. I had to re-look at everything. When people made casual assumptions, I would challenge. It must have been very tedious for everybody. For example: my boss would say without a blink of doubt that it was a women's role to be decorative and that my heels ought to be higher! I would go to my tax inspector who would claim that as a woman I should only be working for pin money. When I got a promotion my colleagues would tell me it should have gone to a man with a family to support. Problems at the office got worse as I became fed up with always handling what were considered women's products: eggs, milk and food. I refused to work on cigarettes too and I was told that my duty was to my employer, then to my husband and my children but my own moral convictions were supposed to come way down the line! I ended up being fired.
I lost a lot of my girl friends too because of my opinions. I was taken to task by one over a meal: she told me no woman should ever have to support a family; they loved their husbands too much to be feminists and anyway the idea would fail because women were too competitive with one another to unite. We fell out and she stopped talking to me. Ironically her husband left her, sold the flat without telling her and she had to support the children herself
I took off my wedding ring, men did not wear them - women did. I could see how they were used by women as a badge of triumph and flashed about to make unmarried women feel ringless. My wedding ring was an affront to my sisters! What was nice in those early days was the sense of sisterhood - nobody was wondering who was right and who was wrong. I had just began to write. My first book, The Fat Woman's Joke, assessed the late Sixties without me knowing that it was feminist. However, both women and men found it quite horrific. I was considered mad, bad and dangerous to know - people would actually walk out of rooms when I entered. I was a public enemy; it was not nice.
But I had finally made a connection between the personal condition of women and the political. Nowadays there is a culture of indignation and pressure groups but back then women did not protest. The Marxist political movements of the late Sixties had made educated women feel very left out. They would make the coffee while men made the decisions. We were mute decorative witnesses - revolutionary molls. Women just did not speak in public. You had to train yourself because otherwise you felt so nervous your voice would go up two octaves and you squeaked. In the Eighties I went to Russia on a cultural mission and the British fielded quite a lot of women. The Soviet authorities with some difficulty produced a woman poet. Every time she spoke publicly her voice would rise and the Russian men would take up newspapers and determinedly read until she had stopped. It was part deliberate, part instinctive and part embarrassment. Fortunately, as a foreigner I became an honorary man, but it reminded me of how 15 years ago in England it had been exactly the same. Crossing over from one side of the television studio to the other felt like going out of the dark into the light. However the light often flickered. I wrote a book called Puffball, about a women at the mercy of her hormones during her pregnancy, and that went down very badly with feminists. At the time it was felt that women were exactly like men - their hormonal existence had previously been used to keep them in their place, and became something to be ignored. Two years later everything had switched again and moved into mother goddess and menstrual joy.
The first time you say something people look at you astonished, the second time it seems vaguely familiar and is taken seriously, eventually everybody agrees and forgets there was ever any disagreement.
Being ahead is always painful and difficult; you have to get through that first time and the blank looks. The revolution once accomplished becomes part of the establishment. Give it 20 years and the truth becomes the lie. By the end of Eighties the truths of early feminism had become what you had to fight against. All the worst bits had been taken up and turned sour. I re-read all my early books and decided which of the statements I had made were no longer relevant - most of them were broad generalisations about the terrible behaviour of men. I was speaking in Boston to a mostly female audience and explained what I had done, but whenever I read out any of these statements everybody rose to their feet and cheered wildly. It was too late to pull it back.
Six months ago a man from the Institute of Cultural Relations came to see me. He was writing a book about the difficulty men were having getting their voices heard in a media which, at all levels except the very top, is totally female dominated. The polarities have switched. He was very passionate about the plight of fathers and the way that women have their babies aborted with no reference to them. I laughed slightly at the idea of oppression of men and I told him if he felt like that he should start a masculinist movement and he replied: "Men will never unite - they are too competitive for the favours of women!" It was a revelation, exactly the same sentiments as 30 years previously and it has made me start looking around. He came with me to the hairdressers, to the heart of feminine, rather than feminist, power - it was rather ironic in its way. He talked as I had a wash and a cut. My hairdresser thought he was a wimp; the typical reaction to a depressed man who appears to be complaining. Once again, it was the same response as you would have had from a man to a woman back in 1968.
I'm not blaming feminism, but the rights of men now have to be addressed, and the role of employment too, because what are we going to do with the children? We can't go on like this! Nowadays it is women who often disapprove of me. I've been described as the Winnie Mandela of feminism - so what's new?
Where do I get the courage? I just know I'm right and they are wrong! They will come round to my way of thinking very fast. I just don't care what people think. I recovered from a fear of flying by deciding that death was probably preferable to life anyway! What have you got to lose? Today we are handicapped by "emotional correctness", telling us how we should feel about everything. It matches the "political correctness" trying to control how we think and speak.
It is impossible to arrive at a society in which you shouldn't be questioning everything. I've learnt that not only should you change your mind, but that if you don't you really will be mad, bad and dangerous to know. The pace of change is hotting up so the time you have to be right is getting shorter and shorter.
`Big Women' is published by Flamingo at pounds 12.99.
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