Young women, the state and public order in Britain, as seen in clippings from the newspapers, August 2011: Natasha Reid, 24, pleaded guilty to stealing a television from a Comet in North London during the riots of 7 August. Her mother said she was ‘baffled’ by her own behaviour – she had a much nicer TV set at home. Shonola Smith, 22, pleaded guilty, along with her sister and a friend, to ‘entering’ Argos in Croydon: ‘The tragedy is that you are all of previous good character,’ the judge said, as he sentenced them to six months each. Chelsea Ives, the 18-year-old ‘shamed former Olympic youth ambassador’ shopped by her mother, pleaded guilty to criminal damage and burglary on the Sunday, and to violent disorder (a Somerfield in Hackney) the following evening. ‘The public seem to automatically place me in an unnamed category for thick, low-life individuals, which is not me at all,’ Chelsea wrote ‘from behind bars’ in a letter intended for the novelist Gillian Slovo, but which the Evening Standard used as an occasion to run her big-hair camera-phone-in-the-mirror Facebook picture yet again. She began a two-year jail sentence this month.
Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with feminism. Young women ‘of good character’ losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t. You feel so sorry for them, but can’t you sense what they tasted in the air as they were doing it: freedom, fury, the power – for once – of being young and strong and agile and a homegirl, the flat-out joy of getting your hands on some free stuff. ‘This is the best day ever,’ Chelsea said, while looting the T-Mobile store. ‘Trainers, clothes, mobiles, iPods, Macs – possession of these things is tantamount to human rights,’ a writer called Charmaine Elliot posted on Blackfeminists.blog, remembering her own youth in London. ‘I took a trip to Selfridges one afternoon to visit a friend and was struck by advertising slogans that said, à la Barbara Kruger, I shop, therefore I am. And I couldn’t help but wonder that as I couldn’t actually shop, ergo what?’
At the UK Feminista summer school in Birmingham meanwhile, Emily Birkenshaw, 24, a teaching assistant from York, was learning how to ‘go floppy’ when arrested. ‘You’re heavier then, so you can’t be carried,’ she told the Observer. ‘It just felt really empowering.’ UK Feminista was launched last year by 29-year-old Kat Banyard, whose first book, The Equality Illusion, came out at much the same time. ‘The event is set to harness the recent upsurge in interest in this previously unfashionable social movement,’ a press release for the summer school said. In June UK Feminista had joined forces with Object (the stress goes on the second syllable, ‘I ob-ject’), another newish bright-young-feminists organisation, to campaign against the recent opening of a Playboy nightclub in London. ‘Eff off Heff, stop degrading women!’ protesters chanted. ‘No more sexist men, Playboy empire has to end!’
Look at them on YouTube, having their genteel shout and waving their Ban the Bunny placards: ‘Ob-ject, women not sex objects.’ ‘That’s not what empowerment looks like/This is what empowerment looks like!’ Idealistic, well organised, compassionate and let-them-eat-cakey, these young women have no place on their neat clipboards for disturbance, unintended consequences, humour or even humility when faced with the pressures and precariousness of most people’s lives.
More from YouTube, late September. Object and UK Feminista have been busy, dressing up in white overalls with red ink on their faces, waving cleavers outside the XBiz pornography trade show in Bloomsbury: ‘Just a bunch of pimps and butchers/ Who trade in women’s lives!’ A small bearded man shouts at them bitterly, an XBiz ID card round his neck, a bottle of Stella in his hand. ‘You’re a bunch of whores!’ he snarls. ‘I’m gonna fuck you all up the arse!’
‘Pornography today is increasingly violent, body-punishing, degrading and woman-hating,’ it says on Object’s press release, which is both true and completely beside the point. It’s a free-market economy out there, so of course there’s going to be violent pornography as long as there are people fucked up enough to want it. And of course there are people prepared to make it for them. The American writer Laura Kipnis warns against getting ‘teary-eyed about exploited pornography workers’ when you ‘haven’t thought much about international garment workers, or poultry workers – to name just two’. Which is funny, because the girls from UK Feminista were wearing the hats you wear to gut chickens and pull their claws off. It’s even funnier if you remember that two of porn’s most successful crossover stars both front animal-rights projects that attack the poultry industry in particular: the Playboy model and actress Pamela Anderson (Baywatch, Borat) and the hardcore queen Jenna Jameson, for Peta’s Kentucky Fried Cruelty and McCruelty (I’m hatin’ it) campaigns.
Chicken pieces, iPods, A-level burb girls with jobs in Selfridges, unable to buy any of the stuff they sell: how often if ever are such things addressed by Object and UK Feminista? How important is being female to a young woman’s everyday life and future prospects, compared to being born in the 1990s, or being Somalian, or good-looking, or receiving EMA, or going to Oxbridge, or not getting a single GCSE? ‘To put it schematically: “women” is historically, discursively constructed, and always relative to other categories which themselves change.’ Thus the British poet-philosopher Denise Riley in Am I That Name? (1988), her short, playful, brilliant study of the many ways in which fixed identities never work. ‘That “women” is indeterminate and impossible … is what makes feminism,’ Riley concluded, so long as feminists are willing ‘to develop a speed, foxiness, versatility’. Can the members of Object and UK Feminista welcome such transformations, or is this what they are afraid of: that if they let themselves really look at the world around them, feminism as they think they know and need it might completely disappear?
‘Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism … perhaps we should say no more about it’: Simone de Beauvoir, at the very beginning of The Second Sex (1949). ‘The subject is irritating, especially to women.’ Long before they were shouting ‘Ban the Bunny’ and dressing up as butchers, feminists were annoying people, not just misogynists and sexists, but the very people you’d think would like them best. It was true in suffragette days, as it was during Women’s Liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s very much a problem for what boosters have been calling ‘the third wave’ since the early 1990s. We know the angry squiggles that signify this irritation – the hairy-legged Millie Tant man-hater, Mrs Banks in the Disney Mary Poppins, a suffragette too busy to care for her children. And it’s obvious how useful such stereotypes have been in neutralising the threat felt in the wider culture. But these caricatures obscure a real problem: a confusion between self and other, identity and difference, that you might charitably view as an unfortunate side-effect of being of and for and by women, all at once; or, less charitably, as narcissistic self-absorption.
It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters. And yet, the strange thing is how often they haven’t: Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed votes for freedmen; Betty Friedan made the epoch-defining suggestion that middle-class American women should dump the housework on ‘full-time help’. There are so many examples of this sort that it would be funny if it weren’t such a waste.
Not that the white middle-class brigade like being on the same side as one another. There’s always a tension between all of us being sisterly, all equal under the sight of the patriarchal male oppressor, and the fact that we aren’t really sisters, or equal, or even friends. We despise one another for being posh and privileged, we loathe one another for being stupid oiks. We hate the tall poppies for being show-offs, we can’t bear the crabs in the bucket that pinch us back. All this produces the ineffable whiff so often sensed in feminist emanations, those anxious, jargon-filled, overpolite topnotes with their undertow of envy and rancour, that perpetual sharp-elbowed jostle for the moral high ground.
Looked at one way – in the manner of Joan Didion, for example, in her harsh, oddly clouded but startlingly acute essay of 1972 on the Women’s Movement – the idea of feminism is obviously Marxist, being about the ‘invention’, as Didion put it, ‘of women as a “class”’, a total transformation of all relationships, led by the group most exploited by relations in their current form. So why did the libbers so seldom say so? Well, some came to the movement as Marxists, and did. Sheila Rowbotham wrote that ‘the so-called women’s question is a whole-people question’ in Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (1969); then in 1976 Barbara Ehrenreich stressed that ‘there is no way to understand sexism as it acts on our lives without putting it in the historical context of capitalism.’ Others shoved the categories in great handfuls through the blender: ‘sex-class’ must ‘in a temporary dictatorship’ seize ‘control of reproduction’ according to Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970).
More prevalent, however, was what Didion called a ‘studied resistance to the possibility of political ideas’ – who, in any case, ever heard of a radical-feminist movement taking its understanding of historical change from a man? The entire Marxist tradition was repressed, leaving a weird sinkhole that quickly filled up with the most dreadful rubbish: wise wounds, herstory, nature goddesses, raped and defiled; sisters under the skin, flayed and joined, like the Human Centipede, in a single biomass; the fractal spread of male sexual violence, men fuck women replicated at every level of interaction, as through a stick of rock.
And so Women’s Liberation started trying to build a man-free, women-only tradition of its own. Thus consciousness-raising, or what was sometimes called the ‘rap group’, groups of women sitting around, analysing the frustrations of their lives according to their new feminist principles, gradually systematising their discoveries. And thus that brilliant slogan, from the New York Radical Women in 1969, that the personal is political, an insight so caustic it burned through generations of mystical nonsense – a woman’s place is in the home, she was obviously asking for it dressed like that. But it also corroded lots of useful boundaries and distinctions, between public life and personal burble, real questions and pop-quiz trivia, political demands and problems and individual whims. ‘Psychic hardpan’ was Didion’s name for this. A movement that started out wanting complete transformation of all relations was floundering, up against the banality of what so many women actually seemed to want.
Across the world, according to UK Feminista, women perform 66 per cent of the work and earn 10 per cent of the income. In the UK two-thirds of low-paid workers are women, and women working full-time earn 16 per cent less than men. All of this is no doubt true, but such statistics hide as much as they show. One example. In a piece in Prospect in 2006 the British economist Alison Wolf showed that the 16 per cent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women – around 13 per cent of the workforce – who have ‘careers’ and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 per cent who just have ‘jobs’, organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less. Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble.
In Feminism Seduced, the American sociologist Hester Eisenstein, a self-confessed ‘professional feminist’, writes that she is ‘unhappily’ aware that feminist politics have become ‘all too compatible’ with the globalised free market and the neoliberal thinking that promotes it. Feminists write books, teach classes, shout slogans, work for NGOs that tell all manner of ‘glossy tales’ about how unambiguously ‘empowering’ and ‘progressive’ it is for women to become involved in mainstream economic life. She finds a real stinker in the UN Population Fund’s 2006 report, which blandly triangulates ‘the global care chain’, which, it says, offers migrant workers ‘considerable benefits, albeit with some serious drawbacks’; on the upside, ‘gifts’, extra cash to send back home, the chance to travel, and for Muslim domestics in the Emirates the opportunity, maybe, to do the Hajj.
The reality is very different for poor women in poor countries – that is, for most of the women in the world. What options really await them when they get a job? According to research cited by Eisenstein, there are basically four alternatives: factory work in export-zone sweatshops, migration, sex work or microcredit. In the old days, the libbers in their rap groups talked about Jane O’Reilly’s notion of the ‘click! of recognition’: the sudden realisation that some nagging problem too dull, too everyday, too basic even to mention was in fact urgent and shared and politically central. Reading Eisenstein’s book, the click! comes as a slap.
How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls ‘the political economy of feminism’, and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the ‘problem with no name’, Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the ‘long boom’ of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway – part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track – most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.
Feminism, according to the sociologist Angela McRobbie, has been ‘disarticulated’ and ‘undone’, bits pulled out, reworked and retwisted, and other bits dumped. At the moment, the popular elements include ‘empowerment’, ‘choice’, ‘freedom’ and, above all, ‘economic capacity’ – the basic no-frills neoliberal package. It’s fine for any ‘pleasingly lively, capable and becoming young woman’ to aspire to this. It doesn’t matter if she’s black or white or mixed race or Asian, gay or straight or basically anything, so long as she is hard-working, upbeat, dedicated to self-fashioning, and happy to be photographed clutching her A-level certificate in the Daily Mail. This young woman has been sold a deal, a ‘settlement’. So long as she works hard and doesn’t throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes.
‘Why a book?’ Louis Menand asked recently in the New Yorker, in an article about how the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – about rich, educated suburban housewives suffering from ‘the problem with no name’ – became ‘the catalyst for a social change’. ‘But why a book? Why not a court case, or a boycott, as in the case of the civil rights movement – something that challenged existing law?’ Perhaps, he speculates, it was ‘because the book was a medium that women had relatively unobstructed access to as authors and as readers.’ Never mind Emma Goldman and her dancing: for revolution to reach middle-class women in the early 1960s, it had to be something you could get on with in the home between the vacuuming and the cocktails. This ‘books as bombs’ hypothesis only works for middle-class women, of course. Working-class women would not be lounging around of an afternoon, but out working, maybe cleaning or doing childcare for a richer woman who was busy reading or finding herself or getting herself a little job.
‘People like to be able to point to a book as the cause for a new frame of mind,’ Menand argues, ‘possibly for the same reason that people prefer anecdotes to statistical evidence. A book personalises an issue. It has an Erin Brockovich effect.’ People don’t want especially true or new or risky ways of thinking about feminism, they just want one of Eisenstein’s ‘glossy tales’ with a part for Julia Roberts. If feminism wants to make sense to the people of the reflecting bubble, it has to present itself as a traditionally feminine narrative genre, as sleek high-end infotainment, with showbiz gossip, glamour, stars.
It’s possible to disagree with this completely while also seeing that Menand is sort of right. Feminist ideas circulated in the 1960s and 1970s through books, magazine interviews and the new form of television chat shows. A montage in Women, a documentary series by Vanessa Engle broadcast by the BBC last year, showed the big bang underway. The former child actor Robin Morgan (Sisterhood Is Powerful, 1970), wry and ready for her interview in enormous tinted shades; Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will, 1975), calmly browbeating a smarmy male editor during the Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in of 1970. And Germaine Greer, of course, a feather-cut hipster dryad: ‘It’s a cinch to have an orgasm. I can give an orgasm to my cat!’ And ever since, this book-as-bomb model has come to stand for the progress of feminism in general: Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth, 1990), Susan Faludi (Backlash, 1991), Ariel Levy (Female Chauvinist Pigs, 2005) – big-selling first books by American upper-journalists, young and clever and energetic, bright-eyed and bushy-haired.
Unexpectedly, though, Engle’s film also captured the shadow, a living ghost, of something else. In one especially mustardy-looking fragment, a young woman and a toddler in a crochet tabard are seen falling out with each other in a dingy kitchen, over the foaming horror of the twin-tub washing machine. It doesn’t say so, but this moment comes from a BBC film called People for Tomorrow, made by Selma James in 1971 and now available on open access on the BBC website. The film follows everyday women in Peckham, Belsize Park, Bristol, reflecting on what might change in their lives and how to go about making this happen, in a movement that is plain and concrete, but builds into an elegant dialectic. ‘It’s very bad for children to just see the woman doing all this mopping-up process all the time,’ the mother is saying in this fragment. ‘I’ve been fighting it all my life, my conditioning from my mother, and here I am … doing the very same thing to my two daughters.’
James’s Wages for Housework movement is now remembered, if at all, as a frippery, a jokey badge pinned to a Wolfie Smith lapel. But actually it was an intellectually ambitious attempt to synthesise Marxism, feminism and postcolonialism, and not with the usual sellotaped hyphenations. Domestic work, while not recognised as work because not paid for, is as necessary to the economy as the waged sort. The workforce needs to be fed, clothed, cleaned for, comforted, as does its progeny, the workforce of the future. ‘We place foremost in these pages the housewife as the central figure,’ James wrote with her co-author, the Italian socialist-feminist writer Mariarosa Dalla Costa, in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972). ‘We assume that all women are housewives and even those who work outside the home continue to be housewives. That is, on a world level, it is precisely what is particular to domestic work … that determines a woman’s place wherever she is and to whichever class she belongs.’
For many years, the only widely available piece of James’s writing has been this Power of Women booklet, generally a good sign when you saw it on a new friend’s bookshelf, small and shocking pink. The film, though, is a better introduction, and begins with James herself, earphones on and thumping away at her typewriter: ‘Like millions of women everywhere, I am a typist. I’m a housewife, a mother, and I’ve been a factory worker. For 25 years I’ve been involved in revolutionary politics.’ She was born in New York in 1930 and came to Britain in the 1950s as the wife of C.L.R. James, whom she had met when she was a teenage activist. Her writings, a selection of which will be published next year, present her politics as emerging directly from her daily experience. On how C.L.R. helped her to get started:
‘The way to do it,’ he said, ‘is to take a shoebox and make a slit at the top; then whenever you have an idea jot it down and slip the piece of paper into the shoebox. After a while, you open the box, put all these sentences in order and you have a draft’ … I knew that if I stayed home from work to put the draft together, I would end up cleaning the cooker or doing some other major piece of housework, so I arranged to spend the day at a friend’s house … I had no distractions or excuses. I opened the shoebox, and by six or seven that evening, just as he’d said, I had the draft of a pamphlet.
The point of Wages for Housework was not to reduce politics to dirty dishes, but the opposite: dirty dishes became one index of a job, a role, a domestic ballet that included ‘managing the tensions of and servicing in every other way those – women and men – who do waged work, school work, housework and those made distraught by unemployment’; absorbing ‘expressions of anger that are not allowed elsewhere’; doing the volunteer stuff no one else has time to bother with, ‘from church societies to library support groups, from food co-ops to disaster appeals’ and all this going on constantly, ceaselessly, even more in peasant economies than in richer ones. ‘The major part of unseen and uncounted housework,’ she added, ‘is done in the non-industrial world.’ James also tried to uphold a clarity and honesty about race and class differences among her comrades, without brooding or sentimentality or presumptuousness or more-oppressed-than-thou guilt-tripping:
What we’ve been trying to do … is to develop a unified view of the world, that is, a holistic view of all the divisions among us and how they connect, in order to build the movement to undermine these divisions … We are divided in many, many ways. Naming and examining those divisions, we can come to a unified conception of the real relations among us, both subtle and stark.
James has never been a popular figure in the Western women’s movement, and is snubbed in most mainstream accounts. There are accusations of fanaticism, cultishness, sectarian behaviour. ‘Like Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ Jill Tweedie wrote in a 1976 piece reprinted in a collection of Guardian journalism, ‘Selma James and her sister enthusiasts … harangue conferences, shout from soapboxes, gesticulate on television, burn with a strange fever.’ Even Barbara Ehrenreich gets a little snitty: ‘Battles broke out between lovers and spouses over sticky countertops, piled-up laundry and whose turn it was to do the dishes,’ as though there can be no way of thinking about domestic labour except treating it like a sitcom, with all the sharpest lines reserved for you.
In People for Tomorrow there is a conversation, towards the end, between James and a young man, sweet face and ginger sideburns, out shopping with his permed-and-set young wife. ‘How much time do you spend with your children?’ Selma asks, off camera.
‘Oh, very little, just one day a week, which is Sunday.’
‘Don’t you think you’re missing something?’
The man agrees that he’s missing the children, but ‘can anyone suggest a better way?’
‘Well, that’s what Women’s Liberation is trying to figure out,’ Selma says.
‘Do you think it’s worthwhile?’ she asks the wife, and the wife says ‘No,’ and giggles. ‘We asked her what she thought she might lose,’ Selma says, and the wife says that she just can’t see a man with the children all day. ‘I don’t think anybody should be with the children all day long,’ Selma says. ‘But why shouldn’t he be with the children some of the day and you some of the day too, and perhaps even together? And perhaps even in a neighbourhood, all the parents in the neighbourhood helping with the children?’
‘That’s probably a good idea,’ the husband says. ‘But you’d have to alter the whole structure of work, for instance, wouldn’t you, to break days up into half-days, as far as work goes?’
‘That’s what we want to do,’ Selma says. ‘That’s one of the ideas we want to explore.’
Forty years on, and the changes are in some ways astonishing: where I live in South-East London – just up the road from where James filmed one of the rap groups – it’s quite common to see men caring for children, waged, in schools and nurseries, and, unwaged, in the home. Part-time work is common, as is flexi-time, homeworking, freelancing, multi-tasking. Equality is regulated by statute. There’s a state-funded nursery and a Sure Start children’s centre in the primary school across the road; there are two libraries in easy walking distance, four playgrounds, two parks; and many other things that, when you look at them from a distance, make Camberwell look like the New Jerusalem, except that when you come up close, you see how crummy they are, and compromised, and half-baked.
Perhaps another reason James gets missed out so often is because for more than half a century, she has kept her attention patiently focused on such perpetually disappointing realities. Why keep having your nose rubbed in all this when you could be reading about something more amusing instead? And yet, if you stick with it, you’ll start to see why people like her care so much about public services, crappy and underfunded though they are, and likely to get so much worse. They give you a break, a safety net, a respite; and then, granted that extra brainspace, you can use it to get more. And then, you can work out how to get more. And more, and more, and more, and more and more.
‘Women only,’ it says on the Yahoo page for the London Feminist Network, another circle on the young-British-feminist Venn diagram. ‘For all feminist women’ willing to support the organisation in its aims: ‘to increase women’s resistance to male violence against women in all its forms, e.g., r*pe, sexual assault, domestic violence, p*rnography, pr*stitution, women’s poverty, war & militarism etc’. The vowels were left out, presumably, in order to stop the page being picked up in searches for rape, pornography, prostitution – three of the most popular internet searches. Right from the start, then, the LFN cannot directly name three of its main critical categories – an act of violence, a mode of representation, a nasty job. All linked, in all sorts of ways, but linked just as much to all sorts of other things as well. Rpe, Prnography, Prstitution. Blanked out, beyond the pale, undiscussable.
The Rpe-Prn-Prst triangle first came to prominence with the New York radical feminists of the 1970s – pornography was the theory and rape the practice, as Robin Morgan said. In her memoir of the period, Susan Brownmiller writes that it was ‘a miserable coincidence of historic timing’ that ‘an above-ground billion-dollar industry of hard and softcore porn began to flourish … simultaneously with the rise of Women’s Liberation’, but there was nothing coincidental about it: they were both aspects of sexual liberalisation in a market economy. And something similar is happening at the moment, with panics about ‘sexualisation’, ‘pornification’, and the ‘commercialisation of childhood’. Of course businesses will try selling sexy stuff to children, if they think adult markets are saturated. Of course pornographers want to break into the mainstream. And of course the mainstream welcomes such initiatives, because sex is always sexy, and everybody’s always desperate for something new. And it only gets more sexy when you claim to be against it, which means you get to talk about it at length with the added pleasures of disapproval and self-righteousness. Something of this is surely going on even in Ariel Levy’s elegant critique of ‘raunch culture’, Female Chauvinist Pigs, and in Natasha Walter’s less judgmental Living Dolls (2010). Anti-porn porn, basically, with an interesting relationship to prole-baiting – the word ‘vulgar’ needn’t refer only to a person’s state of undress.
From Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) to the ghastly New Statesman article of 2000, in which she wrote about her own drug-rape in a Paris hotel room, the exemplar of this stuff was Andrea Dworkin, who wrote again and again about sexual victimisation, her own and that of other women, in fiction and non-fiction, in journalism and memoir. I used to find it surprising that such a figure got written about so often, and with such affection, in the broadsheet newspapers, until I realised: brilliant copy. ‘Obsessive feminine masochism infused with the ecstasy of public self-exposure,’ in the words of the excellent Laura Kipnis. ‘A perfect storm of high-profile narcissism, wrapped in an invitation for social rebuke.’
What Dworkin’s writing manifestly wasn’t, however, was any sort of thought-through anti-rape campaigning. In the memoir Heartbreak (2002), the last book Dworkin published before her death in 2005, she wrote: ‘I’ve spent the larger part of my adult life listening to stories of rape … I couldn’t move, I could barely breathe – I was afraid of hurting her, the one woman, by a gesture that seemed dismissive or by a look on my face that might be mistaken for incredulity.’
Suppose you are that ‘one woman’. Would you turn for help to an egomaniacal victim-magnet barely able to stop herself dashing off to write about her pain at your story? Wouldn’t you prefer the company of somebody quiet, damped-down, unflappable, with that trained social-workerly restraint that can seem so bland and frustrating, but which comes into its own the minute someone is actually hurt. ‘How did I become who I am?’ Dworkin’s memoir continues. ‘I was torn to pieces by segregation and Vietnam. Apartheid broke my heart. Apartheid in Saudi Arabia still breaks my heart … I can’t be bought or intimidated because I’m already cut down the middle.’ Andrea Dworkin, a cosmos, multitudinous and all-suffering in her gigantic dungarees.
Members of the London Feminist Network featured centrally in the third ‘Activists’ film in Vanessa Engle’s series Women. ‘I suppose it all comes down to male violence against women,’ one says. ‘Sexual violence,’ says another. ‘Sex trafficking and female genital mutilation.’ ‘Sexual violence, in particular domestic violence.’ ‘Porn is like a huge issue for me.’ ‘It becomes impossible to leave your door without being mortally offended,’ says the beaming and vibrant Finn Mackay, a star activist in her early thirties. ‘That is a sick, sick society.’
Mackay says she first wanted to be a feminist when she was six or seven and heard about Greenham Common. She left home as a teenager to join another women’s peace camp, then moved on to build the LFN, Object and the reborn Reclaim the Night. She’s now writing a PhD about her feminist activities, goes to a feminist meeting most nights and gets at least a hundred feminist-activist emails a day. ‘I have the feminist rage … it’s a bit like taking the blue pill in The Matrix … you understand, you look differently at the workings of society.’ It’s a language of religion, almost, complete with conversion and regeneration and separation from the surrounding world.
Denise Riley, as before:
Can anyone fully inhabit a gender without a degree of horror? How could someone ‘be a woman’ through and through, make a final home in that classification without suffering claustrophobia? To lead a life soaked in the passionate consciousness of one’s gender at every single moment, to will to be a sex with a vengeance – these are impossibilities, and far from the aims of feminism.
Further problems with gender self-saturation were luridly on display in an essay called ‘American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide’ by Susan Faludi, published in Harper’s last year. ‘American feminism … hasn’t figured out how to pass power down from woman to woman, to bequeath authority to its progeny,’ she argued, and her essay collects a hilarious list of indictments gathered from ‘activist gatherings and scholarly conclaves’: ‘Mean Spirits: The Politics of Contempt between Feminist Generations’; ‘Are Younger Women Trying to Trash Feminism?’; ‘The Mother-Daughter Wars’; ‘Am I My Mother’s Feminist?’ ‘The movement,’ she claims, ‘never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent – to reproduce itself … What gets passed on is the predisposition to dispossess, a legacy of no legacy.’ If Faludi followed Eisenstein’s political-economy advice, I think she’d find that half these mumsy metaphors cancelled the other half out.
And yet, this ‘legacy of no legacy’ became a story-arc in Vanessa Engle’s three films. The first film, the delightful ‘Libbers’, cut between archive and contemporary footage, the stars of then as they are now, hitting old age: Kate Millett, bent double in her Crocs, still smoking with gusto; Germaine Greer, clucking at her peafowl; Marilyn French, shortly before her death at 79, tiny, anguished, very ill. The figure, though, who spoke most clearly for history was Susan Brownmiller, watering the houseplants in her New York apartment, toprocking at her street-dancing class in her mid-seventies: ‘There’s so much more that needs to be changed, and the new generation is going to have to learn that you can only do it really by having a movement. But they’re also going to learn, and it’s a sad lesson, that you can’t jump-start a movement – suddenly there’s a critical mass of people wanting to do something with other people, and you can’t fake that.’
The second film profiled a bunch of apparently uninteresting middle-class mothers, bickering about whether in their household the work gets done by the woman or the man. ‘In what way are you different from a housewife in the 1950s?’ the voice off-camera asks. The last film was about the LFN and its sister organisations, and the feminist revival that’s said to be going on right now. Presumably, evidence of such a movement might include recent books such as Reclaiming the F-Word by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune, which is the book of the F-Word website, and Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion. ‘A new heyday for British feminism’, Kira Cochrane claimed in the Guardian, a ‘sudden burst of British feminist publishing after an extensive drought’, but surely that’s pushing it. So a handful of writers try their luck at the books-as-bombs business model, as others copy The Da Vinci Code. And as for feminist blogging, isn’t it just one of those back-bedroom hobbies, like home-made porn and crafting, that suddenly becomes visible because the technology allows it? (Zadie Smith on ‘the great tide of pornography’ in 2001: ‘It’s not all bad news. We’re talking women whose sexual desires are no longer sublimated into the making of quilts.’) Both Redfern/Aune and Banyard try hard to reach younger readers in need of a basic introduction, and seem to have decided that doing so necessitates missing out all the interesting stuff, politics and economics and feuds and splits. I suspect this view may be mistaken.
‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’
What about education? If all these girls spend their teenage years having babies, they won’t be able to become teachers and brain surgeons, not to mention missing out on cheap beer, storecards, halls of residence. To which Morrison, with splendour, rejoins: ‘They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them in my arms and say: “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life.’
Power, who teaches philosophy at Roehampton University, comes to feminism from an unusual angle. As a scholar of Marxism and Continental philosophy she’s well read in the radical-modernist traditions – thus One Dimensional Woman, from the Marcuse book about how postwar ‘liberal democracy and consumerism’ dulled and flattened Western ‘man’. She’s also one of Britain’s foremost web diarists, with a superb blog at Infinite Thought since 2004. And she’s a relative youngster, which means that for her, all that 1960s-1980s stuff is not a story about herself. For her, the past of feminism is approached as history, with irony and detachment.
Two points about Power’s method, with regard to Toni Morrison and other exemplars from the past. Like her fellow Zer0 author Owen Hatherley, Power has a curatorial, almost antiquarian attitude to the relics of vintage radicalism she admires. She writes of ‘the sheer crystalline simplicity of Morrison’s insights into the relationship between class, race and gender’. How hospitable, how generous of Power to invite along a stranger, then sit back and let her take over. How strange and brave of her also to place such a long and striking quote from such an unfashionable writer so teeteringly close to standing as her own first book’s final word. And when you think about it, how explosive of her: ‘When you want to be a brain surgeon, call me.’ All our assumptions are flattened by this laconic little statement.
And this, surely, is only the start. It’s obvious – now Power-Morrison has said it – that any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency. Children are the messages a family, a society, a culture, a civilisation, sends into the future, and yet every day there comes more evidence that child-rearing as currently practised among the people with all the choices doesn’t seem to be working out. They overeat, our little messages, they starve themselves, they adore themselves when they’re not indulging in self-harm. They don’t want to study medicine or train as teachers when they can just be ‘in the media’. And this obviousness starts little fires sparking backwards across the decades. There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house imago goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.
This has not always been the case. A critique of the tight-knit nuclear family as a breeding-ground of consumerism, neurosis, misery in general, was central to feminism in the 1970s. This is Adrienne Rich on ‘the institution of motherhood’ in Of Woman Born (1976): ‘It creates the dangerous schism between “public” and “private” life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. It has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them.’ ‘There is much to suggest,’ she wrote, ‘that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself, the son’s constant effort to assimilate, compensate for, or deny the fact.’
Rich’s book was extremely influential in its time, and such arguments resulted in the growth of the nurseries and of shared parenting of 1970s North London, where attention was given to ‘children’s health requirements, play space, schooling, mothers’ housing needs, anything else we could think of’, according to Lynne Segal. And yet, a few decades later, all this seems buried, Planet of the Apes style, under heaps of chicklit and Supernanny and I Don’t Know How She Does It, and the collected purées of Annabel Karmel. How has what went before been so thoroughly forgotten? The Power-Morrison double act does exactly what such interventions are meant to, flashing up at a moment of danger, laying bare the evidence of a crime.
Power makes no effort to explain how this happened. Instead of choking up on guilt, anger, scholastic hairballs, she just waves ‘the sheer crystalline simplicity of Morrison’s insights’ in front of her: water under the bridge, guys, no need to go on about it, so long as we all do our very best, from this moment on.
Except that suddenly, last spring or thereabouts, the emphasis of Power’s blog changed. Overnight, almost, it turned itself over to the anti-cuts movement, with flyers, listings, e-petitions, links. And Power herself seemed to lose interest in vintage feminism, writing instead about kettling and hyperkettling and the brain injuries sustained – after last year’s anti-tuition-fees demo in London – by the philosophy student Alfie Meadows. ‘Lecturers, Defend Your Students!’ she bolshily entitled her contribution to a collection called Springtime: The New StudentRebellions. It must be relevant that the first university department to close as a result of government cuts was philosophy at Middlesex, where both Power and Meadows studied.
And as if on cue, James and her comrades were out in force this June at the first London SlutWalk, given that name after a police officer in Toronto suggested that if girls didn’t want to be raped of an evening, they ‘should avoid dressing like sluts’. So obviously lots of people – not just women – wanted to dress up as sluts to point out the absurdity of this position; and lots of people, like me, wanted to march in solidarity, wearing our usual boring clothes. A little girl marched in a fairy costume. A transgender couple marched in matching wigs, hiking sandals, gigantic inflatable penises. WHAT WERE WOMEN WEARING IN LIBYA, CONGO, DARFUR WHEN THEY WERE RAPED? read one placard; WE ARE ALL CHAMBERMAIDS, said another, with a little picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Selma James had a home-made sign with PENSIONER SLUT on it, and a little heart.
A couple more items from the scrapbook. International Women’s Day this March was marked by the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup with a piece in the Observer about her new charity, the ingeniously acronymical Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust, aka Great. The Great website has a big picture of Mariella, wan and elegant in a row of smiling African women refugees: ‘From Mozambique to Chad, South Africa and Liberia, Sierra Leone to Burkina Faso, feminism is the buzzword for a generation of women.’ In May they had a big charity auction in a ‘new ultra-luxury hotel’ with ‘the most exclusive guest list’ and ‘an unforgettable performance from Mark Knopfler’. No wonder those refugee ladies are grinning from ear to ear.
Also on International Women’s Day, Power wrote in the Guardian about ‘Rage of the Girl Rioters’, the title of a Daily Mail piece about the anti-tuition-fees day of action last November. She saw the Mail’s treatment as ‘the latest in a long line of attacks on women who campaign directly against the state’, such as suffragettes and rent strikers and bra-burners, miners’ wives and 1990s ladettes. ‘What looks to be a moral criticism,’ she writes, ‘frequently masks a deeper political and economic fear – what shall we do when young women are academically successful, economically independent, socially confident and not afraid to enjoy themselves? Could there be anything more terrifying?’
Rage of the Girl Rioters! I thought as I was reading. This I have to see! So I looked at the Mail’s website, and found some interestingly dialectical comments under the piece. ‘I don’t appreciate my daughter’s picture being [in this section] … She was actually coming out from a crowd rush after nearly fainting!’ writes a lady from West London. ‘In your typically misogynistic attempt at smearing these protesters,’ says a young man from Kuala Lumpur, ‘I have to hand it to you. This must be one of the coolest collections of photos I’ve seen from the day.’ Not so long ago, it was impossible to imagine young women, young people, or anyone really, protesting in numbers about anything; now, they’re on the streets and furious all the time. The Daily Mail, concluding its analysis: ‘Thus, for the first time in a protest filled with confrontation and hatred, young girls took centre stage. Now everything is up in the air and changing all the time.’
Among the recent books consulted in the writing of this piece:
The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men & Women Today by Kat Banyard (Faber, 2010)
Dead End Feminism by Elizabeth Badinter (Polity, 2006)
Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women's Labour and Ideas to Exploit the World by Hester Eisenstein (Paradigm, 2009)
Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952-2011 by Selma James (PM Press, 2012)
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy (Free Press, 2005)
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (Ebury, 2011)
Meat Market: Female Flesh under Capitalism by Laurie Penny (Zero, 2011)
One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power (Zero, 2009)
Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune (Zed, 2010)
Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso, 2010)