Natasha Walter: Where are these triumphant women?

'I just can't understand what Lessing means. Where is it she sees men so rubbished and cowed, and women so crowing?'
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The Independent Online

My heart sank when I saw this headline yesterday: "Time for men to hit back, says arch feminist." When I saw who it was, my heart sank further. I wish it had been anyone other than Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing has long been one of the most striking of all feminist heroines. With her blazing literary talent, her disdain for the games and gossip of the media, her gradual ripening from feisty rebel to grande dame, she occupies a supreme space in the British feminist pantheon. Even men admire her – which they can afford to do, since there is only one of her, and she is getting on.

But you have to take Lessing seriously, and that's what I'm going to do. For a start, let's look at what she actually said. She told the Edinburgh book festival, "I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests. Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did."

I've been racking my brains since I read that statement, and I just can't understand what she means. Where is it that Lessing sees men so rubbished and so cowed, and women so crowing and triumphant?

Is it in politics that she sees this happening? But over the last few years one of the most puzzling aspects of women's approach to politics is the way they have rubbished their own sex. Even Germaine Greer laid into the "Blair Babes" in her last book, The Whole Woman. Female politicians have been amazed at the hostility they have encountered from female journalists. And that has contributed to the almost total disappearance of women from the top echelons of politics. Where, dear Doris, are these triumphant women?

Is it in literature that she sees women triumphant? It is bizarre that Lessing should complain about men being talked down and women being talked up. Because over the last few years I have often been struck by the fact that people so often seem to forget that in Doris Lessing we have, not just a great character, but one of our greatest living writers, still capable of producing superb work. That is so often forgotten because the literary scene is still dominated by a small clique of over-inflated men.

For instance, when I was a judge on the Booker Prize a couple of years ago the gossip was all about two men, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, and which of them was going to win the prize. When neither was shortlisted, an absurd uproar ensued. And where, I wondered, was the uproar over the fact that we didn't shortlist Doris Lessing's novel Mara and Dan, which was also under consideration? How can she say that men are getting rubbished when in the literary scene the men are still talked up and up and up?

If it's not in politics and it's not in literature, it must be out there, in everyday life, that Doris Lessing sees this going on. She adduces as evidence a visit that she made to a school recently, where she saw a group of nine and 10-year-old girls and boys being told by a female teacher that the reason for wars is the innately belligerent nature of men. She saw the girls, "fat with complacency" and the boys, "crumpled, apologising for their existence."

Hmm. Now here I am with Lessing, though maybe not for the same reasons. I think that this kind of quasi-feminism is nonsense, but not because it leads to complacency in girls and crumpling in boys. On the contrary, this kind of talk is just as likely to lead to the very opposite. Because a boy who is taught in the classroom that he is naturally aggressive will eventually learn, just as in previous generations, to take pride in his aggression, and a girl who is taught that girls are never aggressive will learn to stifle her independence. That might make her a good and docile school pupil, but it is unlikely to help her into a full and happy life.

At this time of year we always hear so much about crumpled boys and complacent girls. Every summer we see the photographs of rejoicing girls as they open their envelopes of straight A-grades, and hear much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the boys who aren't doing so well.

But we hear rather less about how these educational achievements actually translate in the real world. Because despite their much trumpeted failure, men still hold the cards in Britain. And too many of those girls who were such wonderfully good pupils end up taking orders from them. For all the fear about failing boys, it is still women who make up the majority of low-paid workers in Britain. We still live in a world in which the jobs traditionally done by women attract the very worst pay and conditions, in which women still earn only about 60 per cent of the total earned by men, and in which women, with less money at their disposal, still bear the brunt of failing public services. This is still a world where women do the majority of unpaid domestic work and where the poorest families are still those headed by single women.

It feels rather impertinent to suggest that Lessing has failed to link the personal and the political. After all, she is the writer who, in The Golden Notebook, gave us a groundbreaking exploration of how hard it was for women to live their lives fully and without fear in a man's world. But here she has lost that sure grip of the intersection between the personal and the political. She has failed to note how little evidence there is in the wider world for the idea that men are now running scared.

Lessing may have seen boys being put down by their teachers at school. And, undoubtedly, many boys are having trouble with their education. But as long as they come out of school into a world that still rewards what are seen as masculine attributes way above what are seen as feminine ones, it may not quite be time to shed our tears over the crumpled boys.

But Lessing made one last point, which shows that she isn't abandoning the feminist project yet. She said that feminism's great energy "has been lost in fine words. But real equality only comes when childcare is sorted out, and it hasn't been".

Here, Doris Lessing has put her finger on a vital issue. In a world in which childcare is not sorted out, equality will always be elusive. We are talking here both about affordable childcare for those parents who want to work, and also about support for parents who want to take time out of work to care for their children themselves. The lack of family-friendly working policies still present a great barrier to women who want to live out their ambitions without sacrificing all family happiness, as well as to men who want to step off the narrow ladder of a conventional working life.

"Arch feminist says childcare not sorted out" does not, of course, make such a good headline as "Time for men to hit back says arch feminist". But if we are looking for a way to move into the future, a way to realise, finally, something of the vision of equality that feminists such as Lessing inspired in us all those years ago, this most pressing task of sorting out the childcare wouldn't be a bad place to start.