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 fiancée 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.

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