High time we called a halt to navel-gazing feminism
Published 24/10/2015 | 02:30
Question: If you are not a feminist in 2015, what does that make you? A sexist pig? A misogynist? Or just someone so tired of seeing the F-word attached to everything from serious sexual violence to light-hearted wolf-whistling that you'd gladly torch your copy of 'The Female Eunuch', rip up 'The Second Sex' and stamp vigorously on 'How To Be A Woman'?
The word itself has become so toxic and so meaningless that it's time to put it to bed - as British news magazine 'The Spectator' has pointed out this week. In a cover story entitled 'The end of feminism', writer Emily Hill argues that the equality battle has already been won and that the current feminist movement - loud, militant and increasingly nit-picking - is defunct.
I hope Hill is right and that feminism's fourth wave is genuinely in its death throes.
It has had some thought-provoking cheerleaders, chiefly writers like Caitlín Moran and Lena Dunham, clever women who used revelatory essays and humour to tease out the complexities of modern gender politics.
But their navel-gazing style, where every aspect of their starry lives is viewed through the prism of gender, inspired a whole generation of followers to start scrutinising their own comparatively dull lives in the hope of finding some outrageous examples of unfairness.
Unfortunately, most of those followers are affluent, articulate, privileged and well educated and have come of age at a time of unprecedented opportunity for women. The scope for outrage is limited, but that hasn't stopped them. Armed with Twitter accounts and fuelled by self-righteousness, the new feminists set about the very serious business of checking one another's privilege, debating pressing issues like body hair and posting photos of men who had annoyed them all over the internet in public-shaming campaigns.
Where their predecessors battled for the vote, the right to earn a living and control of their reproductive rights, modern-day feminists battled to create a hostile climate where one stray comment or wrong look could turn you into a pariah.
Today, all of society's ills are sprinkled with the added piquancy of sexism. Commenting negatively on a woman's appearance, previously simply considered rude, is now sexist. Commenting positively on a woman's appearance, previously seen as a compliment, is now also sexist.
Lads being generally uncouth on a night out are no longer just being lads, they too are being sexist - and threatening to boot. Elderly scientists making outdated jokes about women in the workplace are no longer just old-fashioned, they are sexist (and must therefore be hounded out of their jobs).
In a climate where everything can be sexist if you think about it for long enough, all sense of perspective is lost. And so, most alarming of all, catcalls and wolf whistles and song lyrics have ended up somewhere on the same spectrum of 'sexist abuse' as grotesque crimes like rape and domestic abuse.
Women began writing about the trauma of being victims of 'rape culture', as if it were a real thing they needed counselling for. And if it made you uncomfortable that women were claiming to be victims of 'abuse' because someone had told them they were hot, you weren't allowed to say it because then you too would be sexist.
If you wondered what city those women lived in who said they were afraid to walk down the street for fear of being harassed, you weren't allowed to say it because if someone said they felt like a victim, well, who were you to argue? That would be victim-shaming (and sexist).
And that's the terrible legacy of fourth-wave feminism: where our mothers fought for the right to be seen as Equal To Men, today women are encouraged to sift through every experience for minute traces of gender bias and thus embrace their status as Victims of Men.
Campaigns like #everydaysexism - where women tweet about perceived sexist behaviour - goad women into highlighting any potential slight and actively encourage them to feel generally hard done by.
The underlying premise of everyday sexism is that misogyny is so ingrained in our culture, when it happens we hardly notice it. Another explanation is that we hardly notice it because it's hardly there, but of course that explanation doesn't fit the narrative.
Stoked into a heightened suspicion that All Men Are Out To Get Them, young women are now unable to distinguish between genuine threat and mildly offensive laddish behaviour. All exist somewhere on the 'rapey' spectrum.
So we are left with the troubling spectre of a movement that savages men for checking women out on the street, but reaffirms every woman's right to stumble out of a nightclub at three in the morning. In doing so, we teach our girls to be self-righteous, but not to look out for themselves. How will that help them in the maelstrom of life?
There are still, of course, real victims: the women who suffer genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa, the Afghan child brides forced to marry before puberty, the women stoned in India for the shame of being raped.
Those are grave human rights issues, but they bear no relation whatsoever to a male colleague clumsily admiring your blouse or someone whistling at you on the way to work.
Closer to home, the feminists are right that a type of inequality persists - Irish women earn 14.2pc less than men, while women make up a paltry 16pc of Dáil members. Men still rule the roost in business and in many of the professions.
But is this because we are victims of sexism or could it be something else?
When you have a female population as highly educated as ours, where girls outperform boys at secondary school, third-level and then out-earn them in their twenties, it looks likely that the reason most of them don't go on to reach the top is because at some point, they stop and have children and then decide (finances allowing) that those children are a priority, not the top job or the biggest salary.
Former TD Mildred Fox wrote eloquently in these pages recently about why she quit politics and funnily enough, she didn't blame the patriarchy or institutional sexism - she simply wanted to be with her kids.
But feminists don't want to admit the fundamental truth that very often, women choose their own limitations. Because if we believe that, then we are nobody's victim.
I know which view I'd rather take.