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Issue 38, May 1999

New feminism vs. old

      On the Move: Feminism for a new generation.
      Edited by Natasha Walter, Little Brown, 1999, £9-99.
      The Whole Woman.
      By Germaine Greer, Doubleday, 1999, £16-99 hbk.

IN 1913 Rebecca West, a journalist and suffrage campaigner, stated "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute".

As the new millennium approaches, a proliferation of books seeking to redefine feminism have hit the shelves. On the Move: Feminism for a new generation, edited by Natasha Walter, is one of these. 'Old feminist' Germaine Greer has been sufficiently angered by 'new feminists' such as Walter to write a sequel to her famous book, The Female Eunuch, which she swore she would never do. Entitled the The Whole Woman, it has reached number one in the British non-fiction best seller list.

If a new generation of women are looking for an ideology or a movement which will point a way forward, they will not find it in either of these books. They are more likely to feel totally confused. Not only do they send out different messages, but the collection of essays in Walter's book contradict each other. In her previous book The New Feminism, Walter outlined a feminism which could embrace anybody and everybody who 'vaguely agreed' with equality between men and women. On the Move continues that theme. "No one will agree with everything that everyone says in the book", writes Walter in the introduction. That's putting it mildly.

  "The personal is still political", says journalist Katharine Viner in her contribution, immediately taking issue with Walter's claim that 'New Feminism' "aims to separate the personal from the political". Walter argues that Nineties women don't want to have their private lives "policed by feminism". They want to enjoy sex with men, wear make-up, dress in short skirts and high heels without feeling that they're betraying the struggle for equal rights. Viner on the contrary, lambasts the 'anything goes' culture which says 'if it feels good, do it'. Zoe Ball and Helen Baxendale posing in Esquire in skin tight leather and suspenders, or Ulrika Johnson manacled in Loaded, are not images of empowered women but women manipulated into male fantasy figures; an expression of men's power over women. "Women today are led to believe that anything goes: that wearing a frilly dress is reclaiming the right to be feminine, that laughing at sexist jokes is ironic proof of how far we've come, that plastic surgery is fine because it makes you feel good. But try asking for equal pay while wearing a baby-doll frock… The personal-is-political was never meant to be a prescription of how to live your life... what it was really meant to do was create an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by political factors. Of how the fact that women were not economically and politically equal to men meant that their relationships with men were unequal too".
  For Helen Wilkinson, even Margaret Thatcher is a feminist, a 'free market feminist'. "In her", she writes, "we saw a woman who did not shy away from showing how much she loved power, and in turn she made it legitimate for us to love it too... We are all power feminists now". Aminatta Forna, on the other hand, rails against 'power feminists' who have benefited most from the achievements of previous generations and now, having done all right thank you very much, publicly renounce feminism as irrelevant: "Having achieved (enough) equality they declare the battle won". She is scathing in her attack on these 'sell-out anti-feminists': "The overt rejection of feminism is akin to the denouement in Animal Farm when the pigs move into the farmhouse; all women are equal but some are more equal an others". She goes on to explain how only a minority of middle-class women come anywhere near to 'having it all' and that for women without partners, or whose partners are without decent incomes, 'choice' or individual fulfilment is a fallacy.

But the mainstream media continue to concentrate on lifestyle matters. "Women's issues are reduced to relationships, the laments of single women, body image, holistic medicine and therapy. Feminism is thus bled of its radical social or political agenda". Livi Michael is even more forthright: "To women on or below the breadline, whose main problems are shopping for food or watching out for discarded needles in their children's play areas, those feminists who focus on the personal, the mystical, the psychological and, yes, the sexual aspects of feminism might as well be staring up their own fannies without a speculum... It is difficult to see what feminism can do when what is needed is money, jobs, job training, housing, educational opportunity etc".

  Despite concentrating her essay on the economic and social equalities which poorer women in particular still face, MP Oona King's brand of New Labour feminism offers no solution. "Anyone who shares the desire to reduce inequality and promote opportunity must embrace feminism", she writes. How exactly cutting the benefits of lone parents, introducing tuition fees and scrapping the student grant are meant to promote opportunities for women she doesn't explain. "Anyone who thinks the need for feminism will diminish in the next millennium", she continues, "is ignoring trends that increase unpaid care-responsibilities for women (thus decreasing their opportunities in other areas)". She then identifies these trends as privatisation, retrenchment in the state sector and cut-backs in social services, all of which are taking place under the New Labour government of which she remains uncritical.

Several of the essays are interviews with young women who explain what feminism means to them. For Karen Loughey, aged 15, feminism is about "finding equality between men and women in all areas of society". For Julia Press, 18, "feminism is about trying to get women equality with men". Summarising the essays in On the Move, Walter states "all the writers here rage against inequality", and really that's the only thing which unites them.

But in The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer doesn't even agree with that. "We all agree that women should have equal pay for equal work, be equal before the law, do no more housework than men do, spend no more time with children than men do - or do we? If the future is men and women dwelling as images of each other in a world unchanged, it is a nightmare" writes Greer in her 'warm-up'. "Unpopular feminists 'fight' for liberation; popular feminists work for equality".

  Greer's book is a personal response to both 'new' and 'post' feminists. "It was not until feminists of my own generation began to assert with apparent seriousness that feminism had gone too far that the fire flared up in my belly. When the lifestyle feminists chimed in that feminism had gone just far enough in giving them the right to 'have it all', ie, money, sex and fashion, it would have been inexcusable to remain silent… It's time to get angry again". And that's exactly what she does, in her own inimitable style. In a stream of consciousness she lays bare every possible way in which women are still discriminated against and oppressed, in paid and unpaid work, as mothers, violence against women, sexuality, women's bodies, childbirth, abortion, cosmetic surgery, pornography, the Child Support Agency, all get the Greer treatment. While there are many facts and figures, often she doesn't bother to back up her arguments, employing sweeping generalisations and exaggerations. "A love of idleness is another characteristic that male Homo sapien has inherited from his anthropoid ancestors", for example. Or "men don't shop, even for their own underpants"; while women are subject to a "gynaecological abattoir". She's witty, quirky and often off the wall.

In On the Move, Helen Wilkinson applauds women throwing of the cloak of victimhood, coming close to playing down the oppression women still face. Greer, on the other hand, often falls into the trap of 'victim feminism', portraying women as passive recipients of a patriarchal male conspiracy. At times she appears to imply that women are colluding in their own oppression or at the very least are not aware of what is happening to them. She seems impatient with and even a bit contemptuous of other women who are not as 'enlightened' or aware as she is.

  Both books have one thing in common, a total failure to offer any explanation of or workable strategy for tackling women's oppression. In stressing 'liberation' rather than equality Greer goes furthest, but she never really explains what she means. "Liberationists sought the world over for clues to what women's lives could be like if they were free to define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fate". But how? She seems to recognise that some men are oppressed under the current system and yet flirts with separatism. She correctly states that "the most powerful entities on earth are not governments but the multi-national corporations". And she gives a glimpse of how things could be different: "With modern technology nobody needs to die of the diseases of malnutrition any more; every year untold millions of people do just that. We could distribute food rationally from places of plenty to places of scarcity; we don't. We could provide everyone on birth with clean water; we don't. We could use our standing armies and billions of pounds worth of material to protect people against the consequences of natural disasters; we don't". But again, how? Nowhere does she engage with the question of how economic and cultural resources could be democratically controlled and society re-organised in the interests of both women, who are doubly oppressed, and those men who are also exploited under the current system. She fails to make the crucial link between class society and women's oppression and between socialism and liberation. Like On the Move, The Whole Woman tells us how bad things (still) are, but not what we can do about it.

Reviewed by Christine Thomas

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