Maureen Freely: Must women's gain be men's loss?

'If only we could agree to leave grandfather clocks, see-saws and gender switches out of the discussions'

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Once upon a time, there was a first sex and a second sex. Men called the shots and women bowed in submission. Then the feminists arrived, and after much huffing and puffing and flaunting of hairy legs, they eventually managed to turn the tables. Now it's women who are on top, and men who are the underdogs. That's not just what the tabloids say. Lots of highly respectable writers and think-tank people say so, too. Many of the most vociferous are themselves women, and some of them (for example, Fay Weldon, Ros Coward, and Melanie Phillips) are women who were once high-profile campaigning feminists. Now they're campaigning just as vigorously for men and boys.

Once upon a time, there was a first sex and a second sex. Men called the shots and women bowed in submission. Then the feminists arrived, and after much huffing and puffing and flaunting of hairy legs, they eventually managed to turn the tables. Now it's women who are on top, and men who are the underdogs. That's not just what the tabloids say. Lots of highly respectable writers and think-tank people say so, too. Many of the most vociferous are themselves women, and some of them (for example, Fay Weldon, Ros Coward, and Melanie Phillips) are women who were once high-profile campaigning feminists. Now they're campaigning just as vigorously for men and boys.

The last three and a half years have been full of disappointments for them. But now there are indications that they might have attracted two very strange bedfellows to their cause. The new allies are none other than our twin Women's Ministers, Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell. They are arguing that the new feminism should be about inequalities affecting both sexes. If they win the argument, they could soon find themselves made redundant.

What they would like to see in the place of the Women's Unit, apparently, is a new and more inclusive body. Names under consideration include the Citizen's Unit or the Equal Opportunities Unit. The brief would be to make sure all men, women, girls and boys enjoy the full range of human rights as we define them. A tall order, perhaps. But who could possibly argue against the principles it would be seeking to uphold?

Judging by the early responses to the news, just about everyone. The most sinister rebuke came from Robert Whiston of the pressure group Mankind. A unit seeking to act on behalf of both sexes would be "like putting the courts in the hands of the thieves. I have never seen a woman in charge of a government department that has ever taken a balanced view of men."

He thinks a unisex unit would be a disaster, and Mary Ann Stephenson of the Fawcett Society has her doubts, too. We may have come a long way, and a lot of recent advances are thanks to the Women's Unit, but there is plenty more to do, women are still the poorer sex and have far less political power. We still need the Women's Unit "because most policy is based on men's lives, from working patterns to relationships". That's what we need to challenge, she says, and I agree. But we've also got to challenge the terms of this tired, circular debate.

Start with the metaphors. Am I the only person who is fed up with that wretched pendulum that has swung too far? How much better life could be, if only we could agree to leave grandfather clocks, see-saws and gender switches out of the discussion. They are the verbal equivalents of the Taliban. The underlying message is that there can only ever be one gender in ascendance. They make it very difficult to imagine a more complicated future, and very easy to ignore the areas in which men in this country really are at a disadvantage.

Beginning with the most glaring example - fathers and mothers do not have equal rights. The disparity is there from the moment a child is born. Soon women will be able to count on six months' paid maternity leave, but men will be lucky if they get even two weeks. The odds against their playing an active part at home continue to be high - not because their wives block them but because their employers block them.

The equal opportunities law as it stands now makes it very difficult for men to make a case for family friendly working practices. If they get divorced, their chances of becoming their children's primary carers are slim even if they were the primary carers during the marriage. If they find that their ex-wives deny them even sporadic contact with their children, and take their case to Family Court, and feel at the end of it that they have not had a fair hearing, there is little they can do. Family courts are closed courts and not required to explain their mysterious ways to the public. Suffice it to say that they almost always decide in favour of the mother.

As for men who father children out of wedlock, they might have parental responsibility, but - even when they have been active and committed carers - they have next to no rights. As a feminist, in other words as someone who believes in equal rights, I find this appalling. I'm even more appalled, though, by the all too common assumption that you have to abandon feminism in order to say this.

What a nonsense! Women cannot have equal rights unless men have them too. There is not going to be equality in the workplace unless there is also equality at home. So long as we have laws that discourage and discriminate against active fathers, we will continue to have a society that undermines and undervalues active mothers in the workplace.

Turn that argument inside out and it works just as well. If you act on behalf of working mothers, active fathers also benefit. If you help fathers spend more time at home, you make it easier for mothers to earn a living.

You can apply the same reasoning to the "crisis in masculinity". The seesaw brigade are sure boys are on a downswing because girls are on an upswing. But perhaps the two phenomena are not directly linked. If girls are doing better in school in certain subjects, it could be because they are getting the sort of education that suits them. If boys are doing less well, it could be that they are not getting the sort of education that suits them. If this is the case, you do not solve their problem by blaming it on girls. You solve it by working out what boys need and then making sure they get it.

In a world without see-saws or pendula, the object is to make life better for everyone, rather than to privilege one group over another. This, I imagine, is what an Equal Opportunities Unit would be about. Could it succeed? It could, but only if it were designed in such a way that took into account Robert Whiston's reservations as well as Mary Ann Stephenson's. In spite of their many differences, both are aware of the way in which problems that are particular to men or women can be vanished by politicians using gender-blind terminology.

So Stephenson is right to be worried that a broad-based unit would forget or water down the basic facts about female poverty and power. But Whiston is also right: if the Equal Opportunity Unit were only staffed by women, men could not always be sure to get a fair hearing. That said, neither would full-time mothers if no one in the unit had ever been a full-time mother, or divorced parents of either sex if there were no divorced parents on its staff. To do its job well, the new unit would need to make sure that its staff was balanced and truly representative, and took the question of unpaid work and care as seriously as it took the question of employment.

It would also need to consider the different problems of men and women and boys and girls separately, even as it worked to give all groups equal opportunities. It would not be expected to limp along as the Women's Unit does now, undervalued, underfunded, and under constant attack. To put it differently, it will not work unless the people at the top put equality at the top of their agenda. And they're not going to do that unless we make them.

All in all, there couldn't be a better time for men and women to unite. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose but a pendulum and a see-saw.

mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

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