07 March 2013

Neither a doormat nor a whore

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.
 — Rebecca West

I’ve been trying to get my head around the concept of “feminism” for a long time — its been sitting in my Drafts folder for ages without making much progress. I can follow the early story well enough, from the earliest stories of the nuns through Mary Wollenstonecraft to the suffragists. I can see the story against the background of male domination and the idea that, legally speaking, a married woman didn’t exist. I was surprised to find that in those days a man’s fiancĂ©e gave up her rights to him — her rights, under copyright, that is. Her ideas, his property. I can understand what Votes for Women was about — even if  my viewpoint is limited to parts of the Western world. (And the paradox that a male lunatic or criminal could vote, but a single, property owning, tax-paying female couldn’t.)

Yet it begins to get murky for me from around the middle of the 20th century. If the suffragists were “first wave” feminists, the “second wave” confuses me totally. If there was a common thread to this, it’s lost me. There seem to be so many varieties of second wave feminism, so many agendas and no obvious, apparent common purpose. Parts of feminism turned into “Women’s Liberation”, though I’m still unclear what it was that they wanted to be liberated from. (And before you say it, it wasn’t their bras.) Other parts — or perhaps the same parts — seem to be primarily men hating; given the millennia of male suppression, I suppose that was inevitable.

If feminism is about “equality”, then I’m still puzzled. Equality of what? Opportunity, perhaps, and equal pay for equal work. (I was fortunate that in the professional parts of the NHS there was equal pay.) But then, you must accept, that there are occupations that don’t equally favour men and women; the difference between strength and compassion. (Yes, I do realise that there are strong women and compassionate men, I’m simplifying, not patronising.) I don’t hear, for example, anyone saying that women should have the same (reduced) life expectancy that men have. And though women are safer drivers, and were rewarded with lower insurance premiums, the EU has determined that there should be “equality” of premiums. And I expect that this will also apply to annuities. In both cases you can argue that women lose out on “equality”. Sometimes “equality” almost seems to mean “more” or “better”, but not equality.

I’m drawn to the conclusion that (absolute) equality is impossible, a myth. Yet I realise that if I say that, then people may well say that I’m an unreconstructed patriarch. I’m trying hard not to be; if equality is an unrealisable dream, what ought I to think today?

Equivalence is one suggestion; the idea that men and women aren’t directly equal, but have concurrent values. You could say that male and female are complementary, that the one can’t exist without the other; that both are necessary for full expression. Equivalent complementarity isn’t exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue, but (I hope) best expresses the real and desirable position today.

Back to feminism. I realised I’d lost it when I read about something that happened in the late 60s or early 70s:

An early conference was split — improbable as [it] may sound — by a bitter quarrel between lesbian feminists and Maoist feminists.

05 March 2013

The Cobb and Chesil Beach

Lyme Regis is today a small town on the Dorset coast; it was once a major port, gaining the suffix Regis as recognition. It’s a place for tourists today, together with the Jurassic coast, famous for fossils. The harbour is guarded by a mole, The Cobb. Chesil Beach is nearby, a shingle bar extending to the Isle of Portland. Despite this pleasant location, the area has a sinister reputation in literature; awful things happen there, far out of proportion to its size.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrave falls while being rather silly on The Cobb, and is unconscious for quite a while. When she recovers, she has changed from a flirty air-head to a much more sober young woman. Personality changes are common enough after serious head injuries, reflecting damage to the frontal lobes. People may change considerably, though usually they become temperamental, often violently so; a change “for the better” is distinctly unusual. But then, that’s the sort of thing that novelists are allowed to get away with — and it confirms Jane as a well read author.

Sarah Woodruff, the eponymous French Lieutenant’s Woman is first seen on The Cobb, as if looking for her (presumed) lover; she is regarded as a “fallen woman”. There’s fossil hunting too. Of course, John Fowles is playing with us — even to the extent of providing several different endings. This book was the first of the neo-Victorian genre; novels which strip the classical works of their homilies, euphemisms, circumlocutions and hypocrisy.

A more recent book is The Hand that first held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell; it won the Costa Book prize. Again, The Cobb is the background to a tragedy; but you will have to read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Chesil Beach features in Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner, a very popular late-Victorian romance for boys. There’s a murder and a drowning, lots of improbable coincidences, and a happy ending. (She waits for him.)

On Chesil Beach by Iain McEwan differs from the others; it’s the fact that nothing happens that is so awful. And I’m not telling you what doesn’t happen.

Just what is it about The Cobb and Chesil Beach that makes them so suitable for tragedies?

[Edit] The ITV series Broadchurch is filmed around the village of West Bay on the Jurassic coast. Just reinforces the impression that this isn't a good part of the world.






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04 March 2013

Getting my finger out in the shower

I have about fifty topics stewing in my to-do section (Drafts) of Scrivener. Some of them were started so long ago that I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, and why I was going to say it. Others are no more than a few keywords and a collection of links; they were topical once, but no so now, and I don’t know whether it’s worth the effort to complete them.

I do have some that are more or less finished; yet I’m uncertain whether they properly reflect what I mean, whether you will understand what I’m trying to say. And so they sit there while I ponder. It might be better if I tried to rewrite them, but then I’d be unhappy about the sunk costs.

Some of them have complicated mind maps connected to them; more a collection of random thoughts than something which is thought through. I’d excuse myself by saying that I have these random thoughts in the shower where I can’t write them down. And by the time I’m ready to write, I’ve forgotten the half of it. Getting my finger out in the shower is an art I haven’t perfected.

I’ll try to complete some things in the next days and weeks. In the meanwhile, this is the sort of thing that I’m faced with:


(Click to enlarge.)