Making It

Melissa Benn

  • Different for Girls: How Culture Creates Women by Joan Smith
    Chatto, 176 pp, £10.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 07 011651 2
  • The New Feminism by Natasha Walter
    Little, Brown, 278 pp, £17.50, January 1998, ISBN 0 316 88234 8
  • A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham
    Penguin, 752 pp, £20.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 670 87420 5

There was something unsettling about the serried ranks of New Labour women elected on 1 May last year. All those structured smiles and cheerful jackets gathered round our leader made me feel like a bad-tempered Daily Mail reader or one of those glorious man-hating feminists of myth who live in Hackney and refuse to shave their legs. What I hadn’t realised was that this unmonstrous regiment of women came much closer to representing the end of something – feminism as a natural ally of radical politics – than to representing a key moment in the long march through the institutions. Nor had I imagined that so many of them would become part of that blancmange known as one-nation politics.

There are many reasons why they have proved such a disappointment. Personal ambition is one. Most new MPs live in fear of marginalisation, of being banished to the Siberia of consistently applied principle, of having to face up to the fact that they will never be a bag-carrier for an Under-Secretary of State. Sisterly solidarity, too, plays a part. Top Labour women are ferociously loyal to each other, but their loyalty has so far furthered no cause greater than the right of cabinet ministers to send their children to selective schools or to have their minds changed over tobacco sponsorship of Formula One.

‘Blair’s Babes’, like Emily’s List before them, are not merely creations of New Labour and all the tangles of the Party’s history in and out of power. They also reflect a new strain of feminism, born of, among other things, the competence and crises of a growing class of professional women; the continuing predominance of the cultural over the economic; and the demise of a more everyday politics – of the street, the school and the council estate. One of the many paradoxes of both the new feminism and the new ‘radical centre’ is that while their language suggests a fresh eagerness to embrace society and its problems, they speak to and for an audience – broadly, the comfortable wedge of Middle England – more isolated than ever before. Contemporary rhetoric – the talk of ‘caring’, the self-celebration and the pious toughness – conceal an authoritarian certainty that the good society can be created by an alteration of attitude, a shift in moral direction.

Like Clintonism, both the new feminism and the new radical centre are resolutely mainstream, at ease with mass communication, and increasingly contemptuous of any other political forum. Both hold out their hand to what might once have been called the enemy or the oppressor – the forces of masculinity and capital respectively. Both toil over their saleable ideas, messages and titles and hammer them home until the political consumer buys the book, marks the ballot paper or switches off the set. Both make their pitch to youth and newness but, far from being teenage rebels, the youth in question are the staid, disapproving friends and allies of Saffy, the teenage daughter in Absolutely Fabulous, looking down her nose at her mother’s immaturity.

One can see many of these elements in the recent work of Naomi Wolf, probably the most famous of the new feminists. Now married to a Clinton speech-writer and very much in caring-Democrat mould, Wolf began her career on prime-time TV. She has always been marketed on her youth as much as her beauty; and along with other, more idiosyncratic ‘third-wave’ feminists, like Camille Paglia, she has led women back towards the embrace, personal and political, of men and masculinity. But while Wolf wants us all to dance towards a sunny future as in a Coca-Cola ad, Paglia prefers to imagine us battling mightily like the Flintstones. And rather like New Labour, for whom the main obstacle to a decent society appears so often to be the Old Left rather than Rupert Murdoch, feminists in the manner of Wolf and Paglia see the history and traditions of feminism itself as the largest barriers in the way of women’s greater freedom. Three years ago Camille Paglia told me that she had ‘single-handedly turned the ocean liner of feminism’ around, a wonderfully appropriate metaphor for a woman who, wherever she is, shouts like a foghorn in an Atlantic mist.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that British feminism has wholeheartedly embraced the new revisionism. The Britfem’s ambivalence towards her American sisters is well known and recently threatened to tip into farce with Paglia’s denunciation of Beatrix Campbell as a ‘mediocrity’ and her equally silly declaration that British feminism is jealous of her because it has not produced anyone of stature since Germaine Greer – ‘and she’s Australian.’ But the real problem with the Americans is not their rudeness so much as their politics, or lack of it. Wolf’s 1991 Fire with Fire – her call for a realpolitik in which ‘sisterhood and capital’ might be allies – misfired in Britain, partly because British feminism does retain a visceral if complex connection to political radicalism, to system-changing not tinkering.

Yet we have been impressed, despite ourselves, at the reach of the Americans. Nothing makes a Britfem feel more parochial than to see one of the Americans fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall to capacity when she is grateful to be asked to a local bookshop. For years now, British feminism has been desperately trying to achieve mainstream appeal. Catchy booktitles, styled photographs, radio and television appearances have done their bit and an array of cultural critics and journalists – Suzanne Moore, Linda Grant, Joan Smith, Beatrix Campbell, Susie Orbach, even Julie Burchill – have established a niche in newspaper and broadcast journalism. Others, like Lynne Segal and Lisa Jardine, have climbed the academic ladder. Even so, the shortage of media stars, as opposed to commentators, remains and New Labour women have stepped in to fill the vacuum. It is more likely to be Harriet Harman, Clare Short, Barbara Follett, the recently ennobled Helena Kennedy or even Cherie Booth, of whom the ‘ordinary woman’ will have heard and whom she will admire.

As Joan Smith notes in Different for Girls, a collection of writings on women and culture, the most loved female figures of recent decades, the true icons, have tended to be largely silent, deeply suffering creatures. Monroe, of course, Jackie Onassis and, latterly, Princess Diana. ‘We like our icons best when they are in distress,’ Smith asserts, even though Diana’s significance as a public figure was becoming increasingly contradictory and hard to read right up to her death: a creature of pop modernity and solemn tradition, uniquely stylish and yet Ms Everywoman, and in the last year or two, a woman both utterly broken and supremely powerful. The opening chapter of Smith’s book, published in the week after the crash, argues that death was the logical, operatic end to Diana’s story.

Different for Girls typifies a significant shift in subject-matter on the part of British feminists. The most prominent feminists of the last years of Tory rule were newspaper journalists concerned to analyse the territory in which they themselves dwelled: that of popular culture and in particular the cult of the celebrity and super-celebrity. This new sassy presence has been conventionally hailed as feminism’s great success, part of its engagement with the real world, but it is also possible to see it as a sign of the political defeatism of the period; a product of the longueurs of Conservative rule when there seemed no point in being interested in politics. The recent obsession with Diana has spawned a new phenomenon – the feature article as fan-mail, or even love letter. But this is just the latest twist in a long shift away from the scrutiny of actual, material inequalities towards an intense analysis of symbolic, emotional injustices – one which, by complete coincidence, fits in much better with a newspaper editor’s agenda.

Smith’s book is, nevertheless, an acute and enjoyable analysis of misreadings and misrepresentations of women in popular culture. Put simply, her argument is that women are far less different from men than the media, religion, politicians, pundits and the fashion world would have it. And indeed there is a kind of ‘new woman’ abroad: a more androgynous, much tougher creature than the postwar or even Sixties model. The new woman, according to Smith, enjoys her own power, her own money, her own sexuality. She can play with self-image without burning her fingers. She is unimpressed by the ever-after promises of marriage (or of men, as it happens) and the easy seductions of motherhood. Smith has often written on the growing numbers of women – one in five, the most reliable figure – who refuse motherhood, and is particularly scathing on the patriarchal implications of infertility treatment:

Our grandmothers might envy the contraceptive techniques which have for the first time in history placed our destiny in our own hands. But doctors are keen to wrest it back. Biology is destiny and the test of a real woman at the end of the 20th century is the length to which she will go – the indignities and ineffectual treatments she will endure – in the hope, however vain, of conceiving a child.

If only the desire for babies could be wished away as a masculine conspiracy, how simple it would be.

A similarly robust picture of new womanhood emerges from Natasha Walter’s book, a work of political polemic which refreshingly breaks with the cultural bias of recent years. Born in 1967, Walter is one of the first mainstream British feminists who can properly claim to be a daughter of the second wave – that is, of the women’s liberation movement of the late Sixties and Seventies. In pre-publication interviews she has spoken of her mother as a Spare Rib-reading activist of the old school. For Natasha Walter, Vogue, rather than The Female Eunuch, provided the moment of revelation, and this difference, if not tension, across the generations informs her wish for a new politics that lets women do, wear, think as they like while carrying on the good fight for material equality and personal freedom:

The old myth about feminists, that they all wear dungarees and are lesbians and socialists, must be buried for good . . . Young women today are unlikely to want lectures from feminists about their private lives. They have learnt to question the precepts of their parents, their teachers, their politicians and their employers in their search for new identities. However young women dress, however they make love, however they flirt, they can be feminists. They do not want to learn a set of personal attitudes before being admitted into the club.

The impression one gets from this passage, and indeed from the whole book, is that Walter cannot quite make up her mind whether the old myths about feminists are true, or the result of ill-meant distortion. Inasmuch as she fails to make a clear enough distinction herself, these ‘myths’ come to serve the useful purpose of giving her something to knock down, even when they d0 represent distortions of a political truth. Certainly, the anti-glamour charge levelled against feminism has no resonance for me – one of the hybrid generation that came to adulthood sometime after the crest of second-wave feminism but before Thatcherism really kicked in. All the feminists I have known, from the early Eighties onwards, were glamorous and smart and had ambition in bucketfuls. (Some of us even had chic black lipstick cases with tiny rectangular mirrors which we took to parties, dances and dinners.) So I can’t, as they say, relate to the pc feminism that Walter summons to life in order heroically to slay.

The New Feminism is an interesting combination of American optimism and stern empiricism. From time to time it reads as though some Old Left economic and civil-libertarian demands were being presented by a marketing agency geared up to press home each Unique Selling Point. It has been heavily promoted as a celebration of women’s achievements and their new confidence, when, in parts, as honesty requires, it is rather a gloomy read. Forget Girlpower: women remain at a serious economic disadvantage.

Nevertheless, many of the hallmarks of the new feminism are here: the constant appeal to youth, the significance of men to the next wave of feminist revolution, the breaking down of old left/right distinctions in the call for a feminist ‘politics that cuts across all boundaries’, the importance of being on the inside of power rather than ‘stuck in a ghetto’. Like Wolf, Walter sees such figures as Thatcher and M15’s Stella Rimington as largely positive role models because of what they do for women’s perception of achievement, ‘their normalisation of success’: what they do once success has come is neither here nor there. Thatcher, Walter boldly claims,

allowed women to celebrate their ability not just to be nurturing or caring or life-affirming, but also to be deeply unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death-dealing, to be egotistic. It was cathartic for us to acknowledge those possibilities in the female character, writ so large. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is everywhere. She is the great unsung heroine of British feminism.

This pleasure in female power – or rather the determination not to feel anxious about it, a rather different thing – is the key to the new feminism. It fervently wants to belong, to ally itself to the success stories of its own generation, to be a success story itself. That is why Naomi Wolf is so important to someone like Walter: she is the only feminist of the younger generation to have made it big. Unlike the young middle-class women of the second wave who were schooled in the downbeat theories of Marxism, against which they rebelled in a correspondingly downbeat manner, these youngish women think of themselves as capable, knowledgeable (they can handle the new information technology), worldly and able to think strategically about work and personal ‘goals’. They are not concerned with identity; and derive their emotional sustenance from work and wider networks of friends and campaigners. This is the generation reflected in, and in part created by, the think-tank Demos at its height in the early Nineties: the ‘middle youth’ segment of the market, for whom so many magazines, like Red and Frank, have recently been launched. The majority of Walter’s generation of professional women have not yet hit parenthood; they still earn at about the same rate as their male peers, and their single, high-income status makes their personal and political hopes a lot easier to sustain. By contrast, many of the pioneers of the second wave were already young and depressed mothers when they came to politics.

Justas the older feminist rejection of power was often suspect – a narcissism of exclusion or a form of prolonged adolescence – so, too, in different ways, is the new feminist embrace of power. First, the term ‘power’ is used indiscriminately to celebrate everything from Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect to the teacherly Betty Boothroyd to women’s trade-union involvement. A forum for single parents set up with Lottery money, a recovering alcoholic saved by the forum’s activities, another single parent determined to keep working for £50 a week to give her child a future, Cherie Booth’s ‘I want to be a judge’: all these different phenomena, which have to do with politics, friendship or the vagaries of individual temperament, are subsumed under the umbrella of ‘power’. Much of the activity that Walter describes is not particularly modern: Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is packed with images of female bustle.

Walter does not gloss over distinctions of class or income between women, although one feels that, as with so many journalists, her heart is with the poor but her interest is with the successful. What she fails to convey is any sense of conflict between one woman’s ‘power’ and a less favoured sister’s lack of it. Yet precisely this type of conflict was at the heart of earlier feminist unease about the First Woman Prime Minister effect. Thatcher was a positive role model, possibly; an autocratic and divisive prime minister, definitely. One of the new feminism’s weaknesses is that it tends to subscribe to a benign trickle-down theory of political life, a belief that the forward march of some women is good for all women. Last December’s House of Commons vote to cut single-parent benefit – opposed mainly by older male MPs but sadly supported by the majority of New Labour women – makes it clear that politics requires something more than what Barbara Follett once called achieving ‘critical mass’. Will the new feminists’ enchantment with top women prevent them perceiving, let alone judging, wrong, bad and partisan decisions?

In its bid for sophisticated political adulthood, the new feminism also risks throwing out the most important legacy of women’s politics: the inquiry into personal life. Walter argues that these questions are now ‘sorted’, that women no longer need to justify themselves in terms of their private behaviour. And it may well be that what to wear and who to sleep with are, as Walter points out, rather passé as political issues, but that’s not the end of the story. In my view, the matter of domestic democracy will become the site of renewed private/public struggles, partly because the question of who does what in the home is crucial to the question of who does what outside the home. Another factor to be considered is the growing number of women now employed by the professional classes to do their cleaning, childcare and ironing, often at wages well below any generally agreed national minimum. The old servant problem could come back to haunt the new middle class, itself caught in an ever-intensifying time crisis. Walter is optimistic about men in general – there is none of the male-baiting exhibited by the pop culture girls like Suzanne Moore or Julie Burchill – and particularly about their place in the home. Men, she believes, are ready and willing to take part in the ‘unique poignancy’ of domestic life.

I would say that Walter was right to outlaw prescription in personal politics – there was something truly depressing about diktat feminism at its height – but description will surely remain the foundation of the most intelligent feminist writing. From Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin, the power has always come from the detail. Naomi Wolf is far more readable and interesting on her anxiety at first receiving a substantial pay cheque or on what her pregnant belly told her about the abortion issue than she is on the genderquake and women’s political power. The force of the personal story doesn’t simply derive from a willingness to share intimacies with the general reading public, but has to do with an openness to personal pain, as well as delight. To have had the experience and not missed the meaning. It is oddly logical, therefore, that feminists active in the more optimistic Seventies should have been more mournful in their outlook than the women shaped by the recessionary crises of the Eighties. Economic buoyancy permitted a greater emotional risk-taking as well as a greater generosity to others.

Sheila Rowbotham touches on these differences between the generations in her monumental history of women in Britain and the United States in the 20th century. She is particularly illuminating on the decades she has lived through. In her hands, stereotypes – of the corkscrew-haired hippy, the lesbian in dungarees or the power-suited hyena – dissolve into a series of complex, interlinked narratives. She reminds us of how much was achieved in the Seventies both politically (women’s refuges, for example, and equality legislation) and artistically. And for Rowbotham, at least, the interconnection of personal and political can be taken for granted:

The resolve to break through restraints, defy the taboos around femininity and become new women was fierce and undeniable. The collective culture of the new movement was springing from individual desires for personal transformation which went deeper than any ideology. It involved a psychological break with all that had gone before.

A Century of Women owes a great deal to popular feminism and the changes it has made to the surface of things. It is a stylish book, sufficiently accessible to be widely read and sufficiently sober to become a set text on women’s studies courses. But it is also a subtle political commentary which reflects Rowbotham’s refusal to take moments and movements outside their historical context, a rejection of the CD Rom/ reference-book school of feminism, which sees a glorious unbroken path from suffrage to sexual revolution and beyond.

Rowbotham herself occupies an unusual position in women’s politics, as someone who is crucially important and yet somehow unacknowledged by younger women – perhaps because she has never followed the straight career path, nor adopted the now almost universal journalistic idiom. She has also refused to yield on the central question of class, probably the biggest divide between the new and old politics. Intellectual confusion about how to describe the new landscape of Britain and America has coincided with a political jettisoning of basic commitments to erase inequality and rectify injustice. And so New Labour abandons the idea of significant structural redistribution in favour of a narrative of mobility – a diluted version of the American dream. Getting poor mothers into poorly paid work, it turns out, is both a neo-feminist and a New Labour project.

Rowbotham is having none of this. For her, the individualism of the Eighties was not a positive development for women or for society in general. In a recent review of A Century of Women Natasha Walter criticised her for failing to produce a concluding balance sheet or any programme for the future. But in a short final chapter, Rowbotham implicitly rejects the question; as she says, ‘the dimensions of women’s experience are too extensive to fit a simplistic linear model.’ The code is not that hard to crack: do not mistake the progress of the professional woman for the progress of all.