Two new books argue that, far from living in a ‘post-feminist’ age, women are once again fighting attempts to erode their hard-won gains. Sue Wilson investigates the backlash.
For most women, the idea that the struggle for gender equality has advanced so far as to frighten society’s male-dominated powerhouses into unleashing an anti-feminist backlash would be laughable if it weren‘t so serious. With women in the UK accounting for 44 out of650 MP5, no Cabinet members, three per cent of top civil servants, nineteen out of426 circuit judges, under two per cent of directors of FTSE 100 top companies, ten out of 1200 surgeons and eleven per cent of managers, the revolution isn’t here yet. And with women earning on average two- thirds of men’s pay, doing 70 per cent of domestic chores and constituting over 65 per cent of the 10 million British workers on incomes below the Council of Europe’s decency threshold, equality, too, is still some way down the road.
Nevertheless, as is comprehensively documented in
Susan Faludi’s Backlash (based originally on US data but published here with additional British research), the anti-feminist tide is running with formidable force. From media myths (35-year old-single women have a mere
5 per cent chance ofgetting married; career women are experiencing an ‘infertility epidemic‘, or acute depression — or both) to widespread erosion of reproductive and employment rights, during the last decade the pressures on women to return to traditional roles have been ferocious.
Though prompted by the same phenomenon Faludi describes, Marilyn French’s new book, The War Against Women, takes a somewhat different tack from Backlash. Asserting that ‘men as a caste’ have, throughout history, systematically sought to deprive women of their rights, French sets out an appalling catalogue of oppression and abuse, from endemic economic and political discrimination to wife-beating, female ‘circumcision‘ and rape; taken as a whole, she argues, it constitutes a global ‘war against women’. It‘s a powerful and harrowing read, the battery of evidence French marshals in support ofher case outweighing the occasional lapse into sweeping overstatement.
There is too little space here to mention, let alone discuss, most of the points raised in French and Faludi‘s books; suffice to say that both would make a valuable contribution to anyone‘s — man or woman — understanding of how our society and culture operate. But perhaps the central point both authors make is that the key obstacle to equality is our current definition ofwhat constitutes a ‘real‘ man. Faludi quotes a twenty-year social
attitudes survey in the US which asked respondents to define masculinity. Again and again, by far the commonest answer among men and women was ‘a good provider for his family‘. In other words, female dependence is still generally seen as essential to male identity. French puts it slightly differently: ‘Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they feel inferior.‘
‘As long as we define a ‘real’ man as one who has a woman leaning on him,‘ says Faludi, ‘then every time women start to struggle to their feet, it feels to men as though their legs are being kicked out from under them.’ Neither she nor French. however, see the current ‘Wild Man', drumming-in-the-woods craze as any solution; both point out that Robert Bly and other movement leaders, directly or implicitly, blame women (primarily mothers and feminists) for men’s problems. ‘What men need to do,’ argues French, ‘is to turn on their fathers; not their real fathers but their spiritual fathers— the
. and what to think.’
philosophers, politicians and businessmen who teach them how
Despite the heavy weight of depressing facts and figures in both books, their authors are encouragingly upbeat about the future. Faludi concludes that the backlash, for all its power to make women miserable, simply isn’t working, as ‘women continue to postpone their wedding dates, limit their family size and combine work with having children'. And French, despite the ‘man-hating’ tag with which she is often saddled, has some surprisingly good words for the opposite sex. ‘There are very many well-intentioned men out there,‘ she insists, ‘who are unhappy with their lives, but aware that women aren’t to blame. Equality will happen; it‘ll be a very long haul, but we’ll get there in the end.‘
Backlash is published by Chatlo & Windus at£9.99.
The War Against Women is published by Hamish Hamilton at £8.99.
:— For the poor
‘The poor always ye have with you’, wrote StJohn, thereby providing governments throughout history with a Bible-sanctioned ‘excuse’ lortheir failure to eradicate one of the primary sources of human misery. The belief that poverty is not Inevitable, that large-scale deprivation could be ended lithe political will existed to do so, underpins a new book by novelist Robert Wilson and photographer Donovan Wylie. They visited places like London's Hackney and Whitechapei, Glasgow’s Blackhill and Easterhouse, Beifast's Ballybean and Falls Road, spoke with the people who live there, wrote down and photographed what they learned, felt and saw. The result is The Dispossessed, an impassioned, harrowing and immensely powerful chronicle oi life in the tightest comers oi 90s Britain. it makes us look at things from which we normally avert our eyes, renders visible what is usually obscured by an official screen of duplicitous statistics.
Waiting, Easterhouse from The Dispossessed, an impassioned, harrrowing
‘What we were trying to do was make a complaint,’ says Wylie. ‘Also, as a photographer, lwasn’t just trying to document poverty, l was trying to understand it through photographs. And by the end I felt I did understand it, a little. I was moved, I was upset by what I saw, and I learned that what poverty really is is unhappiness.’
The Dispossessed is no ‘obiective’ sociological study but an emotional indictment of a system which allows poverty - defined simply as ‘a state ol want or deprivation that gravely interferes with someone’s ille' - to continue unabated; in particular, it exposes the punitive effects oi Thatcherite legislation (benefit changes, erosion of employment rights, the increase in part-time, low-paid service jobs) on the already disadvantaged. The book's main strength lies in its personal histories, such as that oi 24-year-old Gabrielle, whose husband left her with two small children and no money, so she suddenly found herself struggling to survive on £58 weekly benefit. 0r 29-year-old lialiy, mired in arrears with rent and fuel bills, left with little
and immensely powerful chronicle of life. more than a "V" a mama." 3""
benefit deductions. lie had been evicted from his flat, his wile had left him, his two daughters had been taken into care and he was due in court on his third shoplifting charge. Or the Belfast couple who, having battled for three years to cope with mounting rent and fuel debts, could no longer afford to support their four beloved children and were considering placing them voluntarily in care; the woman had
tried to commit suicide twice in the last six months.
What emerges from such tales is an overriding sense of poverty’s ‘assault on the sell'; the corrosive humiliation, the multiple indignities, the cruel psychological damage it inflicts. And, perhaps even more overridingly, the sense that such things simply should not be allowed to happen in any society which presumes to call itself civilised.
‘lt would require an unprecedented moral, cultural and political shift,’ writes Wilson, ‘lor British society to reject the idea that poverty, if not necessary, is at least inevitable . . . We seem to have an immoderate capacity for finding bearable the suffering of others.’ The Dispossessed tests that capacity, urging us to understand that poverty Is something that shames us all. ‘All i can do now,’ says Wylie, ‘is not forget that I made the book, not forget what i saw and tell. i know now that poverty isn't something that happens in the east of the city, or the west of the city; it affects everybody and it could happen to me, or you, tomorrow. if everybody realised that, then maybe some changes could be made.’ (Sue Wilson)
The Dispossessed is published by Picador at £6.99.
The List 10— 23 April 1992 53