Monday 24 July 2017

Women at War: Ladies, If we're not together, we fall apart

She’s sticking her tongue out of course and there are giant pink babies’ bottles all around her. Why? - Lily Allen at
Electric Picnic in August.
She’s sticking her tongue out of course and there are giant pink babies’ bottles all around her. Why? - Lily Allen at Electric Picnic in August.
Caitlin’s sexism test is: And are the men doing this, as well? - Author Caitlin Moran.
SlutWalks: the public marches featuring women dressed up like, well, sluts - A participant carries a banner during a march in London.
Sarah Carey

Sarah Carey

From the suffragettes to second-wave feminists - generations of warrior women fought a fight so we didn't have to. But what, she asks, have we done with this great feminist legacy?

Women simpering that they don't want to be called feminists. A generation that believes aping porn stars is an exercise of liberty. Middle-class women  crushed by guilt and impossibly high rising standards. And meanwhile, men get on with running the world in which misogyny, sexual exploitation and discrimination are rife. And they tell us we live in a post-feminist world? Sure . . .

'Catfight! It's 'Women against feminism' versus 'Everyday Sexism'. It's a social media thing. You know the way street gangs have tattoos so members know who to kill? It's a bit like that, but for girls, and with hashtags. Each group has a website, on which women photograph themselves with handwritten notices explaining which side they're on and why.

As with everything in modern public debate, it's all about anger and labelling. I'd love to ignore this sort of thing but since the internet reflects real life, I'm sad to say this reflects women. Seething resentment, bitter disagreement and totally opposing world views. In the meantime men get to sit back and carry on ruling the world. Ladies. Can we get it together, please? Because if we're not together, we're falling apart.

I find myself bewildered by the naivety of contributors to both sites, some of whom have similar grievances despite their different allegiances. And all of whom seem very young. Women Against Feminism - "I'm against feminism because I love my boyfriend" - won't realise their mistake until they hit 40 and their looks fade. Over on Everyday Sexism there are shocking tales of male aggression, but also shocking female immaturity. For example: "Spent the night with a boy I had a crush on. I woke up to him sexually assaulting me with his hands. I curled up, trying not to cry". He thinks it's consensual sexual relations. She thinks it's an assault. I'm finding it hard to blame him in this scenario.

I'm not against feminism. There isn't a single aspect of my life that I don't owe to strong women who fought a fight so I didn't have to. From education to financial independence to contraception, I'm a middle-class, middle-aged woman in a First World country. To deny what feminism has done for me would be an act of deep political ignorance. So it's always bugged me when supposedly intelligent women simper that they wouldn't like to call themselves a feminist. What precisely is it that they'd like to give back? The Pill? Their own bank account? The right not to be raped by their husbands? A job after marriage?

Alas, feminism has gone the way of trade unions: undone largely by its own success. Workers' and women's rights are now protected by law; leading many of the women against feminism to say they already have equal rights. Clearly they've no idea who fought for them.

Others say they're against feminism because they don't hate men. Well, neither do I. In fact, amongst my friends I'm often accused of preferring the company of men. But do men hate women? Most of them don't, but it never ceases to amaze me when I find yet another one who does. The moment of truth always comes at precisely the same point in a relationship, be it professional, sexual or social. It's the second when they realise they can't control you. That moment when you stop being grateful for their attention. Or they realise with a shock that you might be smarter than them. Or, god forbid, that you expect anything from them.

Then you see that flash of surprise and contempt and you realise it was all about power in the end. When they thought they had it they loved you. When they realised they lost it, it's over, baby. Over.

When you've been working for over twenty years - as I have - and spent too many of those years in front of a desk while a man behind it set my limits - you don't need to read on some website that the patriarchy still rules.

So those young women who underestimate misogyny are in for a big shock.

They're also too young to understand the destructive effect consumer capitalism will have on their lives.

How did employers respond to workers' rights? They just stopped employing people. This is the age of the self-employed employee for whom the statue book is completely irrelevant.

How did the same forces respond to feminism? They realised turning women into taxpayers and consumers would multiply economic output. Within a short space of time women weren't choosing their choice; they were forced to work outside the home just so they can pay for it.

That's why many women don't feel 'liberated'. They're often emotional wrecks crushed by guilt, impossibly rising standards and the middle-class imperative to keep up appearances at all costs, who end up asking: Is this what feminism did for us?

When they're also looking aghast at these Victim Feminists who don't understand the difference between sexual relations and sexual assault, it all adds up to very poor branding for feminism. And when women are trashing the brand, it makes life distressingly easy for men who are promptly given licence to trash it too. Those men sitting behind their desks can condescendingly dismiss accusations of sexism, because, hey, we're so far past that, right? Yeah, right.

Housework is a good example of how the law of unforeseen consequences and capitalism combined to make some things worse for women. Seminal works like Marilyn French's The Women's Room exposed the tragic lives of smart women crushed by mandatory domesticity, which inspired feminists to attack the whole concept of housework. Who would waste her life being a housewife? Run! To waged work, which Kathi Weeks calls, "the basic means by which status is allocated". Even Lenin famously weighed in, calling housework, "the most unproductive, the most barbarous and the most arduous work a woman can do." Well that's great, but housework still has to be done and I'll bet Lenin was too busy organising the revolution to do much.

Then came Monica in Friends; whose dedication to a well-ordered house was turned into a pathology: only crazy women actually clean. So now you're wondering if you're not just oppressed doing your barbarous-low-status work, but insane too. You could ask your husband to help out but we know how that one goes: why does it have to be done by him/right now/at all? Middle-class women solved the problem by simply paying a poorer woman to do the work for them. It's a privileged solution to a privileged problem and therein lies the essential problem of the modern feminist.

The guilt of the working mother, the sob of a university student who thinks she's been sexually assaulted, the breast-feeding wars: these are problems most of the world's women would really like to have.

Or as Doris Lessing put it, "Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food." Well, in recent years, several tears have been shed over money, but you know what I mean.

When people accuse women of whining, it's because the defining characteristic of true disadvantage is neither gender nor sexual orientation, despite what gays say. Real victims in society are poor. The relentless focus on the lack of women CEOs means the discourse is all about the 10pc. Why should the 90pc care about something so abstract? And the worst victims of sexual exploitation aren't shell-shocked college students, but homeless and immigrant children.

Still, there's no doubt these privileged women are profoundly unhappy and in dire need of feminist leaders who can articulate their problems and agitate for solutions. But when I see self-declared feminists complaining about the wrong stuff and in the wrong tone, I understand why other women are reluctant to assume the label.

Take three issues: make-up, SlutWalks and abortion. Here's why the women who purport to speak for women don't speak for me on these issues.

Grooming made the headlines here recently when some argued that the mere mention of make-up and hair trivialises women. It's the achievement that's important - not how you look. Now, we all know that's garbage.

Women know there is nothing more important than hair and make-up. I'll tell you how important it is. A while ago a friend had a mental-health crash. But because she was high-functioning, she struggled to let her family know how badly she was feeling. We laughed bitterly when I told her there was one guaranteed way to draw attention to her plight. If she let her hair go grey. If she stopped getting waxes and electrolysis. If she stopped wearing make-up. Because only a mentally ill woman would stop wearing make-up and dyeing her hair. But we agreed she ran the risk of generating more contempt than sympathy for committing the social crime of Letting Herself Go. She agreed and chose stoicism over psycho-drama.

So don't tell me and my stressed-out peers that even discussing make-up is an insult to women. On a bad day, looking good is all we have left.

Next, SlutWalks: the public marches featuring women dressed up like, well, sluts. It's a campaign, targeted at the police and judiciary, making the point that the way a woman dresses or behaves is no excuse for rape. Slut remains a pejorative term for sexually active women. (Men get the more admiring 'stud' applied to their activities.) Modern feminists are trying to defend so-called 'sluts' from this double-standard and make slut a "sex-positive" term.

But the message that the slut look is not only OK, but to be celebrated, is hugely divisive, especially in the face of the pornification of women relentlessly driven by the music industry. I'm deeply sceptical of claims that this hypersexual fashion is the free expression of female sexuality when it looks suspiciously like male sexual fantasies. Actress and writer Rashida Jones reflected how I felt last year when, in response to the Rihanna/Lady Gaga/Miley-like avalanche she tweeted: "she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores." (Naturally she was attacked for 'slut-shaming' and being anti-woman.)

And there it was in the photographs from Electric Picnic. There's Hozier standing at the mic with his guitar, in jeans and a scruffy jacket. Meanwhile Lily Allen is bending over in hot-pink hot-pants that ride up her crotch to labia-exposing levels. She's sticking her tongue out of course and there are giant pink babies' bottles all around her. Why? That's not sex - it's a fetish. A bizarre infantile male fetish that belongs in some perverted internet chat room for which private browsing was invented. Not the mainstream for feck's sake.

I know Lily Allen claims that she's being ironic, but that just makes her compliance even worse.

At the very least, if the girls copying the porno-culture were actually sexually available I'd be happy to take a libertarian attitude. In my bourgeois marital prison, if I was twentysomething again, had the body to go with the clothes, and the confidence to enjoy the sex, I'd take all the chances I could. But judging by all the tears, it appears the girls can't cope with the sexual attention their behaviour attracts.

This is especially so if they've rendered themselves incapable of providing consent. For example, the sexual-assault unit in the Rotunda sees patients who are concerned that "unwanted sexual activity may have occurred, but they are uncertain due to memory loss associated with alcohol intake". Inducing vast quantities of alcohol is exacerbated by the recreational use of drugs like benzodiazepane. That's why the stupid furore over the stupid nail varnish that tests for date rape drugs is . . . stupid. You don't need a secret test if you've spiked your own drink with a Xanax.

Not knowing if you were raped because you were so drunk is a problem peculiar to a society in which women have the greatest liberties throughout the world and throughout history. But as Edmund Burke asked, what use is liberty without wisdom? (Of course he added "and without virtue", but best leave that aside for the minute).

So look: hurrah for a young woman's right to dress how she wants and drink herself into oblivion. Go girl! But I reserve the right to shriek: what on earth are you doing? Take up kick-boxing not binge-drinking! Stay with your friends. Stay sober. Don't go off with guys you don't know. Wear a coat! It's cold!

But Victim Feminists say this is Victim Blaming and men should just stop raping women. Of course they bloody should. Put it on the list with ending world hunger and curing cancer. Or as Caitlin Moran put it once, "Society should be different. But while we're waiting for society to change, there's just certain things you have to do."

We can also apply Caitlin's sexism test: "And are the men doing this, as well?"Apart from the fact that young men aren't dressing like porn stars, would I give them the same "stay safe" warnings? Yes! I have young sons and I dread the time when they will be going out at night. I'll be running after them with warm coats, taxi money and begging them not to drink too much because I don't want anyone getting their head kicked in.

This is common sense. If people who call themselves feminists are against common sense, is it any wonder there are women who are against feminists?

Finally: abortion. Fundamentally, I'm pro-choice but I deeply resent the carry-on of the pro-choice moment. No, I'm not willing to exploit a teenage asylum seeker and her case by ruthlessly revealing identifying details about her publicly.

And no, I'm not jumping on the Savita bandwagon. I found much of the emoting in her case to be triumphalist rather than sympathetic. Savita Halappanavar was a victim of appalling medical negligence; the law being an abstract connection to her case.

The disciplining of nine medical staff involved in her care and the 13 missed opportunities to diagnose her infection listed at her inquest says everything. If they had diagnosed her infection, by doing unremarkable things like looking for blood test results, she would have gotten her abortion. But the pro-choice movement, who needed another X case, got a corpse instead, and they did not hold back. I was fuming with the grossly misleading headlines around the world claiming that Ireland would "let a woman die" rather than terminate a doomed pregnancy. That was never true, and this is not how I want to win an argument.

But there's something deeper too. While the best estimates say nearly one in 10 Irish women have had an abortion, one in five of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Most of them, whether lost at six weeks, 16 or right up to term are the source of immense sadness and grieving. An extraordinary example of the wheel turning is how the Catholic Church treats these premature deaths.

Fifty years ago they told grieving mothers their miscarried and stillborn babies weren't deserving of decent burials. Now in any Church graveyard, you'll find graves for miscarried babies, some as young as four months, who had full funerals. I'm sure for many women who've had an abortion it's an occasion of mixed feelings - including mourning, no matter the circumstances.

So I wince when I hear other women talking about these crisis cases as if the baby is an alien infestation of the mother.

Yes: sometimes our needs outweigh the baby's and a termination is necessary, but there are two lives. And once that baby gets to a certain stage, it's entitled to a shot at life that sometimes requires the needs of the mother - temporarily - to take second place. Ask any mother put on bed rest for placenta previa and she can tell you about it. So could we cut out The Handmaid's Tale references? All it does is make me grateful to the pro-lifers. I disagree with them on the politics, but at least they speak respectfully of the other life.

The 1983 amendment should be deleted so that parents and doctors can get on with making sad choices. But the campaign for that should be calm and behind the scenes, not hysterical and the cause of switching off the radio every time there's another bad case.

Switching off. That's what it's all about. Men and women switching off from a movement that should be the object of respect, not derision. Women are not equal. Misogyny is real. Hyper-sexualisation is creepy. When women step back from their careers to be mothers to their children that is a valid decision. They're not "wasting" their lives. When they can't fight their way back to paid work, that leads to an imbalance in governance and influence, which is bad for everyone. So there is work to be done, but could we change the tone, please?

I love the filthy humour of Caitlin Moran and the insight and awesome energy of Germaine Greer. I revere the stamina and stoicism of our mothers and grandmothers, those Warrior Women, who endured far more than we can dream of. These are women who embody strength, common sense, wisdom and good humour. Perhaps women would be happier to identify with feminism if it reflected these great qualities.

Sunday Independent

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life