An open letter from Polly Toynbee to Fay Weldon...

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You, the great imaginative voice of feminism who brought us The She-Devil, that tyro of women's revenge, funny and terrible at the same time. You who have so often in your novels turned dry feminist tracts into breathing life.

To recap: you suffered a Damascene conversion six months ago when a man came to see you about a book he was writing on "the difficulties men were having in getting their voices heard in a media which, at all levels except the very top, is totally female dominated". (Ha!!!) "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." You add, "I'm not blaming feminism, but the rights of men now have to be addressed."

You say you've been called the Winnie Mandela of feminism - traduced by feminists just as you used to be by men in the old days. However, martyrdom is no badge of the rightness of the martyr's cause - most martyrs are bonkers.

You write: "It's impossible to arrive at a society in which you shouldn't be questioning everything." Yes, thinking the unthinkable is a valiant endeavour - but more often than not it's a red herring up the wrong tree without a paddle. You extol the virtues of changing one's mind. Admirable in its way, but that doesn't mean that everything about which you change your mind was wrong.

The best thing about humans, the one thing that raises us above the animals is not our vaunted (and in the sweep of history, deeply dubious) moral sense. It's our thirst for the new, so easily bored in a fidgety quest for something else - not necessarily for something better, just different. A fox is happy to be exactly the same fox as at the dawn of time, but we need the new, every day in every way - new clothes, new food, new news and above all new ideas or else we atrophy and die of ennui.

So, 30 years after you found feminism, it's passe, used-up, has-been, devoid of further imaginative potential. I know how you feel. I rarely write about it myself these days, as I often feel I said it all long ago and got bored with it. Not because the war is won, far from it, but because it's just been going on so long and so slowly, a war of attrition in which every two steps forward gets one step back in revenge - advance, backlash, advance, backlash, our grandmother's footsteps.

But weariness with the battle is why the old must die and make room for the new young things. For that reason, along with Suzanne Moore in her column yesterday, I celebrate the publication of Natasha Walter's book The New Feminism. As Suzanne wrote, it's certainly not very new, but then nor did we invent feminism in the early Seventies. It's always been there, wherever intelligent women managed to write down their thoughts, their worm's eye view of the world of men - to say nothing of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Pankhursts or Simone de Beauvoir. (Go and see Claire Tomalin's exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, "Hyenas In Petticoats", to remind yourself of that pathetic history.)

I am glad another generation is raising the same old issues, albeit in a rather watery style. For nothing very much has changed - yet. The power and the money remain largely where they were 30 years ago. Style, language, a few high- fliers and insanely unrepresentative TV shows about female prison governors, football managers, ambassadors, Detective Inspector Jane Tennisons et al, point the way - but that's all feminist chic imagery, while the substance remains stubbornly slow to shift.

So what about poor left-behind men? Yes, we always knew that more for women had to mean less for men. More women in Parliament means fewer men. Any change has some losers, and however little they lose, they always make a lot of noise. So men are whinging, what's new?

As for the hint that a man should have the right to veto a woman's abortion - well! Given the CSA, should men also have the right to abort a child they don't want to support for 18 years?

Wherever women make a little headway, some great hammer-blow backlash follows shortly. One example: most mothers now go out to work. For the great majority this is not liberation but necessity, for most work in low paid, no-rights, part-time scummy jobs, cleaning offices and loos at ungodly hours. (Women still earn too little for them to bother taxing child benefit, for instance.) But women at work, according to the men, is "liberation" - so on the right there's a groundswell for all women on benefit to be forced to work, too, copying the Americans.

Fay, you talk of the rights of men, saying women should worry about men's role in employment. Yes indeed, it's a worry that there are so many completely useless young men around with nothing to do but cause trouble. (Funny how women don't cause trouble, isn't it?) But if men want to clean offices at 4am for a pittance, the jobs are there. If they want to care for demented old people in smelly nursing homes for pounds 2.50 an hour, the jobs are just crying out for them. No, Fay, women have stolen very few men's jobs - yet. It wasn't high-flying bitches that down-sized and rationalised men out of jobs, not women who closed down steel, coal and ship- building.

But that's the myth. Women have got it all. The world is feminised (New Labour, New Touchy-Feeliness). Masculinity is maligned and men are unsexed (sperm counts are down). Boys are confused for lack of something called a "role model" and the very laws of nature are in peril.

But it isn't a zero sum game. I don't feel sorry that men are being painfully winkled out of their masculinity carapace, any more than I regret the (slow) passing of the idea that femininity means an empty-headed, irrational, whimsical state of dependence. Laddishness, Loaded and the new glorification of football are the inevitable backlash to the very idea that men might, perhaps, have to change a tiny bit. Of all human attributes, our extreme exaggeration of masculinity and femininity are the most dangerous, diminishing, intellectually vulgar and constricting bonds.

The cry of pain you hear from men is their unwillingness to let go. Don't listen. Plug your ears. Men still have almost everything - the best jobs, the most money, the most leisure, the fewest obligations, the most freedom. Do you really want to give back the little we've gained in 30 long years?

Time to change your mind again,

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