We obviously need militant feminists more than they ever needed us. The new feminism promoted in Natasha Walter's eponymous book takes a stand against much of what she claims they stood for. This is in the context of the correct but rather bland arguments she makes for equality. The criticism directed towards Walter and Naomi Wolf - basically, "Tell us something we don't already know" - does not take into account the fact that books such as this may well speak to a generation who genuinely know nothing about feminism. Walter's work is conciliatory in tone. Things should change. She doesn't know how they should change, nor why men should give up power. Perhaps she is just not angry enough; perhaps one day she will be. Perhaps anger is outmoded and militant and unattractive to men, and the new femininity is far too girlie for polemical ranting and raving, but oh I yearn for passion, some fire, some energy. Where is Valerie Solanas when you need her?
Yet the attacks on Walter from some older feminists make me want to defend her, in that they are so patronising. I'd better situate myself here. I am not as young as Natasha but not as old, obviously, as someone like Germaine Greer; and while I do not know any militant feminists, I know lots of bitter and twisted ones who feel that they have never been properly acknowledged or indeed thanked by a younger generation. They may have done it all before, they may have done it more thoroughly and far better than any of us ever could, but the fact is, each generation has to make its own mistakes as well as its own manifestoes.
The only argument worth having is about ideas. No one really cares about whether women wear lipstick and shoes and revealing clothes and the like, though I am aware that there always lurks the very odd exception. No one needs permission to get dressed up as they damn well like. Let us not reduce an important argument to a purely cosmetic one.
No, what matters is Walter's central theme of separating the personal from the political. The difficulty is that, as with so many discussions of feminism, the argument is in something of a cultural vacuum. All collective politics is undergoing transformation. Walter is a moderniser in the New Labour sense of the word, hence her concern with image, inclusiveness and ultra-feel-good reasonableness. The weaknesses of the book flows from this valiant attempt to modernise the peculiarly vague version of politics that describes itself as feminist. Like the New Labour modernisers, she cannot pay enough attention to class, the institutionalisation of power and the genuine conflict that this produces.
If anyone can be a feminist - those who have rape fantasies, and white weddings, and enough money not to care - then why should anyone be a feminist? If you are not driven by a desire to eradicate the power difference between men and women, then why bother with such a dissolute and unfocused ideology?
Whereas Walter argues for a separation between the personal and political, I would argue that in many areas the opposite is happening. The gap between what is properly private and what is purely public is one we debate all the time, whether we are talking about the behaviour of politicians or the domestic division of labour. We cannot talk about feminism, it seems to me, without addressing theories of representation. Representation in both senses of the word. How are women represented culturally? And are women represented equally in positions of power?
We clearly have a long way to go on both fronts. Nor can we continue talking about feminism these days without discussing globalisation, the economic forces that are driving through fundamental changes in the workplace, or the position of an ideological movement (Walter still quaintly refers to it as a movement) in this era of post-modern scepticism. Where are the ideas about the new technologies, the position of women under fundamentalist religions, the redefining of what power might mean?
She is right that feminism has travelled down far too many blind allies concerning dress and sexuality and has become little more than therapy for some. She is wrong to maintain that the personal is only ever purely personal though sometimes it may well be. The gap between the personal and political is a social construction that works in favour of the status quo. Exposing that gap changes lives, in that it reveals that much of what is taken for granted is socially constructed. This insight above all others is what allows the possibility for change. If you do not understand that gender and sex roles and inequality do not just happen, but are created by the culture we all live in, then how do you begin to argue that they may be dismantled and remade in the image of the new model feminism? This, rather than Walter's terrific good looks, is what we should be focusing on.
It matters little whether the ideas of the new feminism are second-hand. After all second-hand clothes can be as chic as anything that is produced today. That, however, is no excuse for second rate and internalised discussion. But then I'm just an old-fashioned girl who would like my heart set aflutter, not after we've changed the world but while we are changing it.Reuse content