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Fighting for Women  -  Rights and Socialism

Women Today

New Britain, New Feminism

A Review of: New Feminism By Natasha Walter, Little Brown, 1998

 

"New feminism" has something for everyone. Whether you're a Spice Girl, Margaret Thatcher, a man, the head of MI5 or a lone parent bringing up children in poverty, you can be part of the all-embracing, inclusive ‘new' feminism.

So what was wrong with the 'old' feminism? According to Walter, the political became too personal. Nineties women don't want to have their private lives policed by feminism. They want to enjoy sex with men, wear make-up, dress in short skirts and high heels without feeling that they're betraying the struggle for equal rights. New feminism "aims to separate the personal from the political". It's a movement that can be supported by any woman or man who wants equality.

Walter (a journalist) states that her original intention was to record the power and confidence of women in the 1990s. Part of her book does just that. Most of it is by now quite familiar: more women are in the workforce, more women entering professional jobs, girls doing better than boys at school, more female MPs, women feeling confident about their sexuality. Facts and figures that have been quoted in countless newspaper and magazine articles over the past few years most arguing that we're entering a new post feminist era.

But Walter naively admits that she kept coming across other stories which illustrate what she calls the 'reality gap'. Women like Leyla Zadar, working 40 hours a week for £90; Maureen Smith from Devon who goes without food because she has only £12 a week to feed herself and her son. New feminism, Walter argues patronizingly, must not just be for the few. It must embrace the disadvantaged as well as more advantaged women. While being 'celebratory and optimistic' and ' building on female confidence', it must attack 'the material basis of economic and social and political inequality'.

How exactly will it do that? Walter is contradictory and confused. In one breath she criticizes 'old' feminism for being to 'personal'. In the next she attacks it for being too 'political'. Her solution? To build a new image-friendly movement that has no political ideology and ignores how personal relationships and culture reflect the wider inequalities in society as a whole. At the end of the book, Walter produces a 'wish list' of changes that she wants to see implemented. Revolutionise the organisation of work, supporting women out of poverty, men taking more responsibility at home, more support for women facing sexual and domestic abuse. Hardly ‘new' demands.

So, if old feminism failed to offer a strategy to the majority of women, what about her own? The new feminism says Walter, "can embrace any strategy that will help to achieve the goal of material equality for women". Well, almost any. She condemns the "too easy link made between socialism and feminism". "Feminism and socialism are two quite separate choices and we can imagine and work towards a feminism that crosses political boundaries." We could, but it would do little to tackle the material basis of inequality that Walter say is her main aim.

"We need to see ordinary women and men raising their voices and demanding the revolution in working life that they desire." We must "Join hands with one another and with men in order to create a more equal society". If enough of us ask nicely enough perhaps the "passionate and committed" feminist, Harriet Harman, will give us what we want.

Is seems incredible that a muddled, naive, middle-class journalist like Walter is being held up by sections of the media as a feminist icon for a new generation of women in Britain. That she is, reflects the ideological and political vacuum which currently exists. It also underlines the desperate need for a socialist alternative that can challenge the root causes of economic and social inequality.

 

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