Feminism did not fail

RP 161 () / Commentary

‘You nearly gave me a heart attack’, a friend told me, after my talk at the opening session of the event in London celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the first national Women’s Liberation Conference in the UK, at Ruskin College, in February 1970. Appropriately enough, the feminist publisher and cultural entrepreneur Ursula Owen had organized this rather special celebration, ‘The Way We Were And Are’, at the recently launched Free Word Centre, in the old newsroom of the Guardian. Free expression, in all its forms, is the raison d’être of Free Word, but I soon found myself an object of censure (though hardly silenced) the moment I began my reflections. Mutterings accompanied my opening suggestion that many young women today seem so much more confident, aspiring and sexually adventurous than we had been when we came of age in the 1960s. They appear as almost another species. This was surely, I suggested, one of the effects of those forty years of feminism, combined, it must be said at once, with well-known shifts in economic affairs (the decline of heavy industry and rise of new technology, and administrative, financial and servicing sectors). Frowns deepened as I proceeded, trying to draw in boys and men, class and other inequalities into my assessment.

There is nothing either new or surprising about feminist contention, especially when one is trying to encompass four decades of social volatility of gender relations in a world where the symbolic traction of sexual difference is constantly being repackaged and flaunted back to us commercially as objects for identification and desire. In the face of continual social upheavals, we see a gritty determination put into maintaining some traditional facade of sexual difference as supposedly the only secure sanctuary of love, caring and commitment, bolstering, above all, the myth that traditional family structures will protect us as welfare entitlements are ever further whittled away. As I write, the wives of our political leaders hit the headlines only, altogether disingenuously, as nurturing helpmates of their superior husbands, chuckling over their prominent partner’s domestic shortcomings as if providing proof of their masculine prerogative to rule over us. Times change, but the gender domain likes to keep that a little secret.

In my talk, I wanted to stress young women’s diverse energies nowadays, not because I thought gender chauvinism obsolete, or that women have managed in anything like equal numbers to join the men among the elites. It was because more and more people seem today ever further from gaining an overview of the complex underpinnings of the increasingly shaky edifices of traditional gender arrangements. We live in a world in which what is still often psychically ‘cherished’ as female ‘difference’ falls outside the near blanket hegemony of fiscal and market concerns, except in so far as it can be used to package commodities to sell to women. Paradoxically, it is this very commercial packaging that is now being highlighted as a source of social alarm regarding the situation of girls and women in today’s world. Only five hours before my talk at the Free Word, the media were buzzing with summaries of the latest report on young women that had nothing positive at all to say about their situation in the world today…