IN ONE OF OUR EARLIER ISSUES WE HAD A TILT AT FEMINISM. IT PROVOKED A LOT OF COMMENT. WE ARE PROUD TO PRINT THIS PIECE UNDER THE PEN NAME OF â€˜ARIZONA STONEâ€™. (Donâ€™t ask about the name. We donâ€™t know either.)
Feminism is rather a difficult word these days.Â Some feminists believe in equal rights for men and women, while others are pushing a female-chauvinist agenda that seeks to tip the scales in the favour of women.Â Both sides are wrestling with the terminology, but meanwhile, in wider society, â€˜feministâ€™ is now quite likely to conjure up stereotypical images of hard-faced, shaven-headed, anti-male lesbians in dungarees.
This is a far cry from Mrs Pankhurst and the noble suffragettes of the early twentieth century who endured the cruelties of the Act of Parliament nicknamed the â€˜Cat and Mouse Actâ€™, being force-fed in order to prevent them from committing suicide on hunger strike.Â Yet thanks to such people (and the â€˜proving groundâ€™ of the munitions factories of the First World War, where the value of women workers was recognised), women achieved partial success in 1918 when those over 30 were given voting rights, and in 1928 those over 21 were also granted the franchise.Â It should come as no surprise that changes in society are reflected in our use of language.Â Modern Britain has no need for the word â€˜suffragetteâ€™, except when educating people about a very important and often brutal stage of our all-too-recent history.Â Consider therefore the possibility that â€˜feministâ€™ and â€˜feminismâ€™ are similarly becoming redundant thanks to the progress we have made, in the last few decades, towards greater equality of opportunity, regardless of gender.
Feminism originally referred to the nineteenth and twentieth-century movement that sought equal rights for women.Â The earliest quotations supporting this definition of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary date from the 1890s and include the following from a Daily Chronicle article in 1898: â€˜The lady Parliamentary reporter is the latest development of the feminist movement in New Zealandâ€™.Â Equality of rights was understood to be the goal of feminism up until at least the 1960s, but from about the 1970s onwards, the uses and meanings of the word have drifted in different directions.
In 2006, there are still many unresolved human rights issues across the world, and the need for the â€˜human rights activistâ€™ is still keenly felt.Â But in modern British society, the rights of women are protected by law and although that does not prevent abuses of power, such abuses are at least no longer sanctioned by our legislation.Â In some cases, the scales have perhaps tipped too far the other way.Â Organisations such as Fathers for Justice certainly suggest that some legal battles of the sexes are still ongoing in our country.
In mainstream western society, a great deal of progress has been made towards the legal equality of the sexes during the course of the twentieth century. When my great-aunt was born, in the early 1900s, the general male population had (quite recently) achieved the right to vote, but women were still disenfranchised.Â My great-aunt grew up in a large family in which the boys automatically received an education but the girls did not.Â Fortunately, showing a great aptitude in her youth, she was successful enough to win a bursary prize which enabled her to study at Glasgow University (which had, since the late nineteenth century, begun to accept women as students).
When she graduated and became a teacher, however, she had no option but to live with her sister because her pay was considerably less than that of a man doing the same job and it would have been very difficult (and certainly unacceptable by her family and social circleâ€™s standards) for her to support herself as a single woman.Â Although there is still an identifiable pay-gap in some areas of employment, much has been achieved.Â The ability for women to control their own fertility has had an immense impact on the way that our society functions and has given recent generations a great deal more control over major decisions in their lives.
Many of the loudest voices of feminism in the 1960s have since been side-tracked into debates about appearance, dress and character which have not helped the feminist movement.Â Notions of â€˜letting down the sisterhoodâ€™ are divisive and lend themselves to unhelpful snap-judgements.Â Stereotypical notions of â€˜maleâ€™ or â€˜femaleâ€™ behaviour also do us no favours.Â Only a sexist would accuse a woman of â€˜acting like a manâ€™.Â What does it mean to act like a man?Â If a woman is objective or assertive, surely she has as much right to choose that behaviour as a man has to be conciliatory or passive.Â If a woman chooses to wear high-heels, she might not have the best interests of her spinal column at heart, but does she deserve to be accused of pandering to men, simply because of personal preference?Â Equality has to allow both genders to express themselves freely.
Unfortunately, such a clamour of superficial, judgemental attitudes has been heard from many self-styled feminists that they have often undermined their own arguments.Â Stereotypes are always unhelpful, and an open expression of personal choice or belief should not make someone a target for abuse (whether that involves wearing a veil or wearing a mini-skirt).Â Inevitably however, re-entering the subjective realm, there are some grey areas.Â Personally, I am averse to the idea that non-essential surgery might become commonplace, as in many cases this is a simple case of commercial exploitation of human insecurity.
Nevertheless, if someone is genuinely depressed because of a physical characteristic, should they be forced to endure it?Â No two people are the same.Â But issues that were once regarded as primarily â€˜femaleâ€™, such as body-shape and weight gain can be equally troubling for men, and indeed the cause of feminism has sometimes been in danger of overshadowing the fact that men are also victims of domestic violence and sexual discrimination.Â It is important to stand up against abuses, but perhaps we should advocate â€˜Zero tolerance of violenceâ€™ (full stop), rather than â€˜Zero tolerance of violence against womenâ€™.Â Wouldnâ€™t that be more equal?
In conclusion, I would therefore suggest that anyone who believes in equality of rights should celebrate the demise of the use of the word â€˜feministâ€™, and be glad that, at least in certain parts of the so-called civilized west, we no longer need it.Â Elsewhere, however, in the towns and cities where rendition flights deposit their human cargo, in the jails we donâ€™t even know exist, and in the sweat-shops from which we purchase so many of our nice, cheap, convenient products, there is still a need for other forms of activism.Â But thatâ€™s another story…