Talk about being late with the news: feminism is finished, The Guardian announced last week, devoting a whole page to a new study which apparently shows that the fight for equality is an "outmoded" concept. "The term has been equated with hatred of men", the paper revealed, shocking readers who live in caves in the Outer Hebrides and were unaware that feminism has not enjoyed a universally positive press. Fortunately students of this phenomenon, which I personally have been following for about 20 years, have longer memories. We vividly recall Newsweek declaring "the failure of feminism" in 1990; The New York Times assuring its readers that the "radical days of feminism are gone" in 1980; and Harper's magazine publishing a "requiem for the women's movement" as early as 1976.
"False feminist death syndrome", as it is known, has been around for a very long time, ever since the late Victorian press described campaigners for women's rights as "a herd of hysterical and irrational she-revolutionaries". Actually, if I wanted to be pedantic, I would place its first manifestations in the late 18th century, when Mary Wollstonecraft (right) published her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and was almost submerged under a tide of hysterical abuse. In the circumstances, I am hardly likely to go into mourning because the media choose to present the findings of a survey of 35 people - out of a population of 60 million, you can do the sum yourself - as the obituary of feminism.
What gave the story legs was the fact that the study had been commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission, and published on the 75th anniversary of women winning the vote. Why the EOC walked into this trap I have no idea, for anyone with a grasp of history could have warned them that the results, no matter how unrepresentative, would be used in this way. People are afraid of feminism, which is why they are so keen to denounce its supporters as man-haters with unshaven legs. Because I don't fit the stereotype, I have spent years of my life explaining that of course I'm a feminist, right down to my Prada mules, which puzzles and annoys opponents in equal measure. ("Ms Smith, have you heard of the vagina dentata?" an American talk show host once asked nervously, as though I was about to leap across the table and savage him with one of my orifices.)
They need to be able to dismiss us, for the simple reason that feminism is threatening. Its aims are far more radical than the French Revolution, which proposed rearranging property and political rights among a class - men - that already enjoyed them. And the media have spearheaded the attacks, often under the guise of producing sympathetic reports of feminism's "failure" to win mass support. The American author Susan Faludi skewered these false friends in her book Backlash, arguing that this kind of journalism "cosmeticized the scowling face of anti-feminism while blackening the feminist eye". Actually, as the small print showed last week, people are just as aware of inequality and concerned about discrimination as ever, even if they shy away from using that kind of vocabulary to describe them.
This is part of a larger problem, for we live at a moment when ideology is unfashionable and government ministers talk like the CEOs of multinational corporations. Yet the young women who tell researchers "I'm not a feminist" have benefited immeasurably from its achievements, from increased rights for working mothers to the greater confidence they feel in their bodies. In that sense, feminism is a victim of its own success, with the effects of institutional sexism kicking in much later - and at an age, to judge by the results of surveys, when women are too exhausted by the demands of careers and parenting to do much about it.
Prophecy is a risky business, as Francis Fukuyama found out when he confidently predicted that the triumph of social democracy over communism meant the "end of history". Everything from the anti-globalisation protests to Osama bin Laden intervened, and the history books are already being rewritten. Announcements of the end of feminism are just as premature, although I do happen to know a sure-fire way of killing it off. All it would take is equal pay, affordable child care, fair shares of housework, higher state pensions and a willingness to take domestic violence seriously. Come on, guys, isn't that a price worth paying?Reuse content