The movement has worked wonders—but not for womenby / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Plus ça change: feminism wasn’t bad for women, but it was brilliant for men
Feminists aren’t happy. In France, philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has provoked the sort of reaction reserved for Englishmen who say Camembert tastes like feet by arguing in a new book, Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mère (Flammarion), that women are being enslaved by the ideal of a mother doing everything for their children. In Britain, Natasha Walter, who heralded the egalitarianism of The New Feminism in 1998, laments in her new book, Living Dolls (Virago) that she “once believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was wrong.”
What is going on? Part of it is generational. Suggesting to today’s pre-teens that men and women are not absolutely equal provokes incredulity. For them, in the 21st century, it is—shrug—obvious. But I think something else is going on too. Feminism has massively enhanced the range of life experiences open to one half of the population—but unfortunately, it’s the wrong half.
When I was a student in the 1980s, feminism was the “ism” du jour. The women’s groups sliced up injustice, while the men’s groups pondered the ethics of masturbation in low, guilty voices. Feminism did change the way we related to each other—the personal became political—and we assumed the world would follow. It hasn’t.
But it has done wonders for men. It’s not only that sex is more open and—since no modern woman wants to be labelled “unliberated”—more frequent and varied. More important is the economics. Going Dutch means single men carry home a fuller wallet from a date, while those in couples are no longer sole breadwinners.
True, feminism has given a tiny minority of highly-educated women better jobs. But what else? Huge divorce settlements? Only in the handful of cases that make the tabloids. In 2009 the Institute for Social and Economic Research found that while a divorced man’s income increases by about a third, a divorced woman’s falls by at least 20 per cent—and remains low for years, even if she doesn’t have children. Worse, fewer than one mother in three receives anything from the father of her kids.
Does such injustice prove Walter et al correct? Curiously, Walter’s book doesn’t mention divorce. Instead, she wastes time picking fights with evolutionary biologists. You can show how girls are socialised—rather than hardwired—to like pink until you’re blue, or pink, in the face, but it’s easier arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness than an evolutionary biologist.
Yes, women today have equality of opportunity. Girls do better at school and make up 55 per cent of university entrants. Young women are more likely to find good jobs. Yet if you look at many outcomes—be it divorce, earnings, savings or the number of female company directors—huge divergences remain. Walter’s book cites with understandable sadness a survey suggesting that 60 per cent of Mancunian teens would consider glamour modelling as a career. But if mainstream prospects are so poor, is it surprising?
Karl Marx inadvertently tipped the wink to capitalism; his criticisms enabled it to reform its greatest injustices to its own advantage. It seems that feminism may have helped the patriarchy in a similar way. Relationships between men and women may have loosened up, but the underlying economics have remained much the same. Isn’t that what feminists should be talking about?
Read Laurie Penny’s response to Jim Pollard: Men: feminism needs you