Monday 24 October 2016

What if feminism is the problem, not the solution?

It's time to confront the cranks who have turned feminism into a divisive, silly and doctrinaire sect

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

'Still Frances Fitzgerald found time in her busy schedule last Thursday to give a rousing speech at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy about the need to empower girls to achieve their potential.' Photo: Tom Burke
'Still Frances Fitzgerald found time in her busy schedule last Thursday to give a rousing speech at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy about the need to empower girls to achieve their potential.' Photo: Tom Burke

You might think that the Minister for Justice has enough to do without adding motivational speaking to the list of official duties.

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There's a Garda strike looming. The Garda Commissioner is being openly accused in the Dail of hounding whistleblowers. That inter-departmental task force on asylum seekers won't chair itself.

Still Frances Fitzgerald found time in her busy schedule last Thursday to give a rousing speech at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy about the need to empower girls to achieve their potential.

Fitzgerald's speech was peppered with the sort of motivational guff that would get a candidate slung out of the boardroom in double quick time on The Apprentice. Long on slogans and short on substance, it could probably have been reduced to a giddy burst of "you go, girl".

Having read it through a number of times, with an increasingly diminishing will to live, a few things do jump up.

For one, who wrote this nonsense? It doesn't read like Frances Fitzgerald's normal way of talking. She even said "whoa" at one point. At least she did according to the transcript of the speech which was released beforehand. Without being one of the "distinguished" guests invited to hear it on the night, it's hard to know how enthusiastically she delivered that whoa, but on paper it was pure Hillary.

Was her speech-writer pitching for a new job if Clinton wins the White House?

No doubt, Frances Fitzgerald would point out that her full title is Minister for Justice and Equality, and that encouraging young women to play a full part in Irish society is her brief. She was certainly keen to stress her own equality credentials as a one-time social worker and later chair of the National Women's Council.

But the whole tone of the speech was less a ministerial outline of specific proposals to tackle specific problems, and more an effusion of vague positivity designed to tickle the audience's fancy. She did mention the upcoming National Women's Strategy, for which the Government is seeking contributions, and she was open in her support for gender quotas in politics.

She did also admit that women can be their own worst enemies for playing down their achievements, allowing men, who are more likely to play up their contribution, to take the credit for success.

No discussion of women's place in society can be complete, however, without also asking whether feminism has become one of the problems rather than the solution.

The Minister for Justice chose not to go there; in her concluding remarks, she insisted that feminism was in better shape than ever.

But is it really? What seems to be missing from feminism right now is some real intellectual meatiness. Taking a cue from comedians, or reading populist scribblings with all the analytical depth of a teen magazine, such as Caitlin Moran's woeful How To Be A Woman, isn't good enough.

Feminists used to grapple with big, difficult questions. Now many of those at the forefront in the feminist movement have run away from dissent, taking shelter in "safe spaces" where they can't be hurt by contact with uncomfortable ideas. You can't change the world by hiding from it and giving group hugs.

Feminism has shrunk, rather than got bigger; it has dwindled to a series of increasingly ludicrous politically correct gestures designed to reassure the like-minded instead of winning round the unconvinced. It has become for women what Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is for the Left - an exclusive club for the ideologically pure rather than a broad church for the many.

Some women are pro-life. Some women are conservative. Some women will vote for Donald Trump. Some want to go to war or cut social welfare. Some don't accept that those who undergo gender reassignment are women in exactly the same way that they are. Every one of them has as much right to her own thoughts and identity as those holding anti-war placards at Shannon Airport or campaigning to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Yet it's other women who are now most desperate to shut them up, to render them invisible.

Frances Fitzgerald made only a few careful references to women in the home, clearly mindful of the fuss that erupted when John Bruton's wife Finola introduced Hillary Clinton to a gathering of women at the National Gallery in 1995, and dared to suggest that Irish feminism needed to become more "inclusive of the positive experiences of all women, whatever their political philosophy".

For this, she was practically accused of treason by the women's movement. Former Justice Minister Maire Geoghegan Quinn called the speech "deeply offensive". It's not entirely clear that this proprietorial attitude towards feminism has advanced much, though is it really such a heretical idea to say that feminism should be for women of all shades of opinion, not just the enlightened chosen few?

The whole reason why feminism was needed was to challenge the idea that there is only one way to be a woman, and that all women must conform to it. Women should not have to act or think in a particular way just because they are women; but these days it's feminists who act as if biology is destiny, and that the very act of being female means having to think alike.

Just when the word "must" should have been struck from the feminist vocabulary, it's becoming ever more embedded. When Theresa May became the UK's second female Prime Minister in July, the Guardian ran an article which refused to see anything positive in the fact, arguing that female leaders on the right of centre "took the same shape as the male leaders before them in order to fit the mould". The message was clear - women who do not feel and think the way that we feel and think are not welcome in our ranks. Worse, they're barely even women at all.

Frances Fitzgerald would never say anything so absurd. Her feminism has always been practical, inclusive, non-proscriptive and good-humoured; and her purpose last Thursday evening was an admirable one - to encourage young girls to see themselves as future leaders.

But if so-called Third Wave feminism is not to degenerate completely into a narrow sect presided over by cranks, then it behoves those on the middle ground not to appease the idiots by telling them, as the minister did, that they must be doing a great job because comedian Amy Schumer says that "anyone who is not a feminist is a crazy person".

There's nothing crazy about women rejecting a label that no longer means what they thought it meant.

Sunday Independent

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