On Feminism

womens movement

What I have tried to assert throughout this book is my belief that feminism’s success has been announced rather prematurely, and what we seem to witness at the level of popular culture is, on the one hand, a flourishing of nostalgia for the “old order” of babes, breasts and uncomplicated relationships, and on the other a sense of powerlessness that as, taken individually, such images are “harmless” or trivial, so there is no clear platform for critique.

-Imelda Whelehan, Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism (London: Women’s Press, 2000) p. 179.

When I read David Willetts’ recent argument that feminism is one of the main causes for lack of jobs for working men, I was both irritated, and not really surprised. This is not a new argument. In fact, it has been trumpeted around since the 1980s. You’d think he’d come up with a new argument by now. But that’s not the point. The problem with such a continually repeated argument is how blatantly narrow-minded it is.

Firstly, does it ever occur to people who are (rightfully) worried about the job situation in many modern Western countries to consider that this problem is separate from feminism, or women in general? How about the fact that our working environment needs to be altered as our lives alter, that we haven’t really progressed as much as we need to in education, that there is still a huge divide between rich and poor, that resources are not allocated fairly and that the working environment is subject to a whole host of other political considerations (class, status, experience, background, race, family situation, skills, etc.) that can’t simply be narrowed down to blaming the familiar scapegoats: feminists. Really, are we still going to talk about such important issues in such an infantile and simplified manner?

Secondly, the implication behind such an argument is that feminism has somehow “won” in a silent female conspiracy against men. This is rather insulting to both men and women. Feminism is not a war against men, it’s a battle against an unjust social and cultural system; a battle that many men are willing to fight as well, I might add. Feminism still has a long way to go, and in fact, comments such as Willetts’s only reinforce how far we have to go.

Imelda Whelehan has put it succinctly in the quote I’ve transcribed above: what we’re seeing, not just at the level of popular culture, but also, in business and political culture, is a rising nostalgia for the “good old days” when women knew their “proper place”. The naïveté of such nostalgia astounds me. As if we could really return to an antiquated and anti-egalitarian social system that completely ruled out one half of the population from contributing to the world in which they live, and living up to their full potential as human beings. I don’t understand why the problems that surround work and jobs are always narrowed down to placing blame upon feminism, and it's laughable to suggest that feminism holds any real sway these days when young women proudly declare themselves not to be feminists. Like Whelehan, I hope “young women of this generation will feel similarly galvanised by the current atrophy of political debate; maybe this time someone will feel nostalgic for the heady days of the women’s movement” (p. 179). Amen.

Image credit: parade down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Photographer: John Olson. Copyright Life Magazine.