New Britain, New Feminism
A Review of: New Feminism By Natasha Walter, Little
"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
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
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.