Who would want to call herself a feminist?

There is an instinct more prevalent in females than males to put others before themselves

Many people, women as well as men, have always feared and reviled feminism. For them, the Talking Equality survey, which was conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission to celebrate the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage in Britain, is nastily fabulous news.

The survey, which questioned 32 people in four focus groups, found that feminism was considered to be "negative", "man-hating" and "ball-breaking". "Women may have less well-paid jobs, or do much more domestic work," it explains, "but people see this as a result of individual choice and natural gender differences, rather than bias in society as a whole."

Such stern condemnation has already inspired a rash of announcements that feminism is dead. Curiously, though, it means no such thing. Instead, it confirms that most people feel no differently about feminism now than they did 10 or 20 or 100 years ago.

Feminism is a strange ideology, forever unpopular but at the same time perennially influential. I can't think of another movement that has changed so many attitudes and so many lives without ever having achieved much in the way of overt mainstream acceptance.

Far from gaining acceptance, feminism has remained the whipping-person of the modern age. There's a lot of nasty imagery around feminism, some of which was voiced in the survey. Anti-feminist propaganda is widespread and still manages to characterise feminists as sex-starved, childless man-haters motivated by bitterness and envy of proper girls. It doesn't matter that this image has no remaining equivalent in reality, if it ever did. The fact is that feminism is lumbered with this identity now, and it puts women off.

And calling yourself a feminist is also, according to the propaganda, a bit like admitting everything is your fault. Feminism is blamed, completely erroneously, for everything - spiralling property prices (working couples), unemployment (women stealing men's jobs), teenage delinquency (feminists driving men to abandon their sons), reality television (the "feminisation" of the culture) and increasing sexual violence (now women don't defer to them, men have suffered a violent "identity crisis").

No wonder so many people - men and women - have for years been happy to accept the quite stunning dividends that feminism has brought us, but without personally signing up to the movement. "Feminist" is too political and provocative a sign for most of us to bother with the hassle of hanging it round our necks.

But return to Marilyn French's definition of feminism - "the belief that women matter as much as men do" - and it becomes clear that feminism, in essence, is actually a modest enough proposal, and one that only misogynists of both sexes would take issue with.

Or so I try to persuade myself. I, like the people in the survey, "support women's rights" and burn with anger at the savage denial of those rights that occurs every second of every day on this planet. But I've never felt comfortable about calling myself a feminist either, even though I admire women who do and acknowledge my debt to them.

Can I really call myself a feminist when I know perfectly well that my time at work pondering this question is facilitated by a female cleaner, cleaning my house as I type, a female childminder, tending to my toddler as I type, a female teacher, assisted by two female assistants, teaching my five-year-old as I type?

My own freedom, fulfilment and wealth is entirely dependent on the goodwill and good service of other women in just the sort of female-dominated work that a feminist will tell you is undervalued and underpaid, and mainly taken up in order to combine work with bringing up children. This is the contradiction at the heart of what came to be known as "bourgeois feminism", concerned with issues and goals characterised in the survey, quite validly, as applying only to "high-flying" women.

Can I really call myself a feminist, too, when part of the perspective a feminist is required to bring to the world is a female one, which puts women first in order to combat that damage of millennia in which we were put last. What mother honestly feels able to continue to put herself first? Can you only be a feminist if the people you put first - your children - are girls?

Of course not. It's important for women and men to bring up their sons and their daughters to understand that "women matter as much as men do". But as a parent, it is also hard to deny that the idea - propagated by some feminists - that gender difference is the result of "social conditioning" is bunkum. The survey refers to the gender gap as "natural differences". Such attitudes seem almost calculated to make a feminist scream. But at the same time it is disturbing to observe how early most little girls start to exhibit a desire to please people and to be helpful, while so many little boys do not seem to give a fig for such matters, and have to be dragged to awareness of them kicking and screaming.

There really is an instinct more prevalent in females than in males to put others before themselves. Women's tragedy through the centuries is that this instinct has been demanded equally of them all, when it is not distributed at all equally and has always been exploited mercilessly, far more than it has been honoured, appreciated and valued.

At the same time, the routine approbation that feminists attract is involved with the belief that somehow they are denying (as some, though not many, once did) that there is any inherent female desire to care for and nurture others. Somehow, feminism has come to be associated with a lack of femininity rather than an appreciation of its great value.

Feminists in this regard are martyrs among us, caricatured as being childless or sexless, in order that other women can assert their own maternal instincts or their own sexuality. During the feminist era, perhaps counter-intuitively, women have become more sexualised rather than less sexualised, and motherhood has been more deified than at any time in history since the Virgin birth.

Those who distrust women and their supposedly sinister agendas see all this, like more or less everything else, as a vile consequence of feminism. Men's groups point to the devaluation of fatherhood that has occurred alongside the elevation of motherhood, as if the two roles are weighed out in scales that have to be balanced. Even older feminists (dread term) stare at sexually aggressive young women today with simple despair, and ask themselves if the right to pierce one's navel is all the ungrateful daughters of feminism care about.

Yet, if anything, fatherhood would now be in a more parlous state than ever were it not for feminism; for while many men have found themselves alienated from their children, many more have found themselves enjoying a closer paternal relationship with their babies than has any generation before them. As for the sexualised images of women that are so commonplace - the onward push of pornography and the pitiless growth of the sex industry are indicators not of how "over-liberated" women have become, but of how much feminism has hardened misogynistic attitudes.

The survey, the reaction to it and the wild claims made against feminism every day all attest to the fact that the stigma around feminism is no less than it has ever been. The day when it is the norm for people to call themselves feminists is the day when feminism will lose its huge and frightening power. Women need feminists. But we can't all be feminists. Most of us just aren't that heroic.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments