Goodbye to all that

A recent collection of essays, edited by Natasha Walter, claimed that feminism is still relevant to young women. Anne Applebaum's essay was commissioned for the collection, but then excluded as "too negative." She argues that the battle for legal equality has been won, and that we should now focus on some of its unwanted consequences
May 19, 1999

For me, the final straw was Huairou. Not everyone will remember Huairou, but some of us will never forget it. Huairou was the Chinese village which in 1995 was transformed for a few days into a sea of tents, huts, makeshift wooden walkways and mud, when more than 20,000 women from around the world met there for the UN's fourth world conference on women.

For sheer colour, the occasion was not to be missed. Saudi women covered in black jostled with American feminists wearing "Why have sex when you can have gender?" T-shirts. Workshops on "stereotyping and sexism in advertising" (sponsored by the Montreal Council of Women) were held a few feet away from tents where Cambodian peasant women in national dress were sewing a quilt in honour of the conference. Tanzanian women sold brightly-coloured scarves; Singaporean women distributed fresh flowers, "flown here courtesy of Singapore Airlines"; the American Association for the Advancement of Science was answering questions about teaching science to girls.

Just occasionally, the different worlds were forced into awkward confrontation. At a workshop entitled "Politics of difference: single women," a few third world women turned up expecting to talk about prostitutes, and the pressures on women in traditional societies to marry the men of their families' choice. An articulate Indian woman stood up and gave a moving speech about shelters which she had organised for women who run away from their violent husbands, and are subsequently shunned by communities which simply do not recognise the right of women to live alone. A few Americans turned up at the meeting too to talk about the difficulty of living alone in Philadelphia ("People, like, think you're lesbian"). Throughout the workshop, the two sides listened to one another in incomprehending silence.

Most of the time they didn't bother to listen to each other at all. The Africans were talking about clean water and basic education for girls. Women from Islamic countries were arguing about whether to wear veils. The Americans were talking about "breaking the glass ceiling," and the French about the literary significance of "the Other." I left Huairou filled with admiration for a handful of brave and energetic women from developing countries; and filled with cynicism about most of the women who had trekked to China from the west. The former had many real causes to fight for; most of the latter were indulging in the false belief that a cause called "feminism" still exists.

like most women of my age and background, I grew up in the 1970s taking feminism for granted: it was just a good cause like other good causes, to be supported without much criticism. But I also grew up without really understanding the nature of the revolution which had already been carried out by previous generations of women. I always assumed, for example, that I would grow up and get a job. Everyone around me-my parents and teachers-assumed that I would grow up and get a job too. This wasn't a matter of "having a career" as an entertaining accompaniment to having a family. I would have a job for the same kinds of reasons that the boys I knew would have jobs: for financial security, professional satisfaction and so on.

This was an assumption, not necessarily spoken aloud. But it was supported by a series of legal changes-some quite recent, some dating back nearly a century: changes in property law, electoral law, divorce law, education law and employment law. In my generation, women had the same choices and faced the same constraints as men. A good marriage was no longer the only form of advancement.

This did not mean that women were the same as men. This meant that women in the US and parts of western Europe were treated similarly to men by the legal system, as employers or employees, voters, property-owners, drivers of cars, users of birth control or purchasers of mortgages and health insurance. Not everybody might be able to take advantage of this equality: women are limited by economics and by social constraints, just like men. Nor did reality always match the letter of the law: women were not always able to achieve in practice what they could in theory, just like men. But equality existed on the statute books, ready to serve as the basis for legal challenges and complaints. The most important battle had been won-and the war itself was over. It may have been fashionable, when I was growing up, to call oneself a feminist. But it was pointless: beyond legal equality, there was little-and there still is little-that women's politics can achieve.

Of course not everyone realised that this was the end. In the 1980s, the death of feminism had already become an established excuse for public hand- wringing. There was talk of "backlash" and the rise of an "anti-woman" right. Much of the argument in the US focused on the right to abortion, which had never, in the past, been central to the women's movement. Yet for all the appearance of falling interest and a reversal of values, there was no more a need to mourn the "death" of feminism than there was a need to mourn the passing of iron washing boards. Feminism was finished because it was no longer necessary. By the time I started working, most people seemed to understand this-except for the small group of women who continued to call themselves feminists.

I realise that it is unfair to categorise them: modern feminists differ, and not everyone who calls herself a feminist is even political in the strictest sense. "Feminists" now include environmentalists, activist Christians, networking businesswomen, academics with a special interest in women writers and-as we know from a thousand parodies-lesbian separatists. Many of these, however, are women acting together in small groups in order to pursue, perfectly reasonably, the special interests which they happen to have in common.

Yet in addition to these various special interest groups, there also exists a community of women who go on identifying themselves as mainstream feminists, and continue to argue about what that implies. Some of the more prominent are journalists; others teach at universities; and still others are ordinary women who continue to follow the debate and strive to apply feminist principles to their own lives. In general, they are easy to recognise because they continue to operate more or less within the same paradigm that advocates of women's rights operated within 40 years ago, a paradigm suffragettes would have recognised too. Most perceive women as economically and politically weaker than men; most assume that all women are affected by this imbalance in more or less the same way; most argue that this imbalance can be rectified, using the legal system-and that all change in this direction is necessarily progressive.

Most, in other words, continue to behave as if the two great legal revolutions of the early 20th century and the 1970s had not taken place. They continue to portray women as if they were all alike, and all victims: metaphoric victims of the fashion industry or the market economy; literal victims of predatory bosses or husbands; victims who are unable to fight back, who have no self-esteem, who are unable to make use of existing laws to defend themselves and thus need "quotas" and other privileges. A classic modern feminist victim is America's Anita Hill, who testified in Senate hearings that her former boss, a candidate for the Supreme Court, had used dirty language in her presence-as if she could not tell him to stop, as if it had hurt her career, as if she had not gone on to make an enormous reputation out of her testimony.

At times, the persistence of these outdated assumptions about women merely irritates. Although I do not seek to be categorised as "anti-feminist," I once agreed, thanks to this sense of irritation, to go on a radio programme with a woman who had just completed yet another study which purported to show that professional women did not rise as high as men-the celebrated "glass ceiling"-that they were generally paid less and that the government therefore needed to do something about it. However, the study did not mention one of the most important reasons why more women do not rise as high as men, and why they end up being paid less: because they take time off between the ages of 25 and 40 to have children. Afterwards, many of them moderate their ambitions, decide to work part-time instead of all day, found small companies instead of climbing to the top of large ones. Others trade time for money, choosing to work less and earn less in order to have more time at home. I can think of at least ten intelligent professional women of my acquaintance who have made choices like that, and not a single one did it because she was a victim of her male boss or her husband, because of anti-female prejudices in the workplace, or because the legal system did not give her enough "rights."

More to the point, those who want to leave work to have children, and to return to work afterwards in the same capacity, are already protected in their desire to do so by rather powerful laws: what more can "the government" be expected to do? To plead for special help from the state to solve this kind of problem is silly-as if women cannot be allowed to decide for themselves what kinds of trade-offs they want to make, as if women have to be measured against men by a salary yardstick, with earnings levels as the only indicator of whether "equality" has been achieved.

Equally irritating is the opposite "feminist" view: not that women and men ought to achieve precisely the same things, but that women ought to do things "differently" when they enter positions of power, becoming female professionals rather than professionals. A survey of women in journalism published in June 1997 was a typical product of this kind of thinking. Its author set out to examine whether an increasing number of female editors and reporters had changed the nature of the news. She concluded that they had, and implicitly endorsed the notion that because women writers were more inclined to cover issues like health and education than politics, and because women have "wider interests" than men, this means that the great task of women journalists was to "humanise" the press. In conclusion, the report called upon women to "throw away the office contact books and compile new ones." But what about women reporters who want to write about traditional political issues? What about female leader writers who rely on the old office contact books? They, the report concluded, were merely "carrying on men's work, and playing an almost imitative role."

Perhaps because it touches on my own work, I found this more than irritating. It was, in fact, very damaging to the few women who work in political journalism, perpetuating the myth that women belong on the features' pages and cannot deal with "men's issues," or that when they do, they become imitation men. During three years writing on foreign affairs for an opinion magazine, and two years writing about British politics for a daily, I failed to see how my political instincts were any different from those of my male colleagues. Nor do I see what made my role "imitative," rather than simply "professional."

From these kinds of assumptions, the feminist position becomes downright dangerous. Either because women are identical to men yet are not achieving in an identical way, or because women are different from men and ought to be given space to be so, another argument follows: women need to be hired and promoted in a special way. Where activists once called for a level playing field, they now argue that the rules have to be fixed in women's favour. The most prominent example of this notion at work in Britain in recent years was the Labour party's use of all-women shortlists in candidate selection. The result: endless comment about the "weakness" of the women in the Labour party.

What seems particularly sad, however, is not so much that modern feminists promote negative stereotypes of women, but that they seem, most of the time, uninterested in providing realistic answers to the genuine dilemmas that women now face as the result of their revolutionary change in status. Legal equality and the mass movement of women into the workforce have created a host of family crises. High rates of divorce, with obvious consequences for children and the elderly, reflect the stresses caused by this massive change, as well as the changing balance of power between men and women. It is not just high-flying professional women who now feel financially secure enough to live alone: changes in the benefit system, which now favours individual women over married couples, have had the same effect.

At the same time, legal equality has not yet brought with it changes in male (and female) attitudes which make it easy for women to work with men on equal terms. Many men still do not want to work for women, or even to hire women-and when they do, they retain fixed ideas of what women can and cannot be promoted to do, or of how much they should be paid. A deep dislike of working women often lurks beneath the surface of even the most apparently enlightened of men. I remember a conversation with a retired newspaper editor who told me that his single biggest problem was the inconvenience caused by women who took maternity leave. If that was a problem, I replied, then he shouldn't really have hired any women at all. "I know," he sighed wistfully, "but you're not allowed to say that."

No wonder many women are still tormented by insecurities about their jobs, or are plagued by the feeling that they are unable to balance the demands of children and careers. Yet for most of the past 40 years, mainstream feminism has had little to say about working women and families. Most of the time feminists have been profoundly uninterested in the problems of motherhood-and husbands-in general. From Betty Friedan, whose main concern was to get housewives out of the house, to Naomi Wolf, who advises women to network their way into positions of power, most feminists (American feminists in particular) have been more interested in what women can achieve on their own, rather than with men.

Worse, the assumptions of mainstream feminism tend to obscure the actual problems faced by actual women. Working women with children, for example, are generally not victims, but rather people struggling to find some way to balance a lot of different concerns. Nevertheless, mainstream feminism persists in seeing them as equally downtrodden and equally oppressed, even when the evidence is otherwise. Certainly they are not victims of their husbands, who are often worse-off.

One of the conclusions of a 1997 Demos survey of women, for example, was that mothers and fathers now have far more in common-in terms of attitudes, anxieties, politics-than mothers and single women. Likewise, working men and working women have more in common than women who work and women who don't work. Women with the money to hire nannies have different problems from women on benefit. The study concluded that feminism was still necessary. I conclude the opposite.

I also conclude that those who are interested in the economic and social issues of these various groups would do much better to detach themselves from feminism before trying to think about solving them. The difficulties faced by female part-time workers should be discussed in the context of part-time work, not of feminism. The ways in which the tax system discriminates against those who hire domestic help should be discussed in the context of tax law, not of feminism. Even childcare issues are really linked to other employment and benefit issues.

As for the persistence of various forms of male prejudice, female insecurity, and imbalances in relations between employees and employers-I can see no solution except the passage of time. Government simply cannot force people to change their behaviour, however offensive. Short of importing squads of PC thought police from the US, there is no way to change attitudes using the legal system. Yet this does not mean that nothing will ever change-things are changing, very quickly. It is odd, in fact, how much feminists underestimate the impact on attitudes which working women can have, simply by their presence in the workplace. By doing their jobs well, women encourage men to hire other women. By becoming managers, editors, chairmen and foremen, women put themselves in a position to hire other women. Through demonstrating competence and reliability, women already find it easier than men to get certain kinds of factory and clerical jobs. Already, there are professions in which the presence of women is actually required: despite the conversation cited above, there is no newspaper editor, anywhere, who can afford not to have women writers.

In the meantime, women are not the only ones to be hired or fired according to their looks or their background; it is not only women who feel frustrated because they cannot achieve what they want. It is not only women who are given an education too narrow to help them in the real world; it is not only women who lack role models or mentors. On the contrary-40 years ago, it was possible to argue that women started their working lives in a worse position than men. Now it is possible, in many parts of Britain, to argue the opposite.

I repeat: I know that there are different kinds of feminists. But why is it that, when I close my eyes and think about the western feminists whom I encountered en masse in Huairou, I want to tell them to wake up, to look at what has already happened in the world; to stop talking about me and the women I know as victims, stop describing the men I know as oppressors, stop pretending that nothing has happened over the past century? The era of organised women's politics is over. Legal equality has been achieved. Now we must revive some of the older values that were lost in the process. Feminism is dead, a victim of female success-can we please now stop mourning its demise.