New Feminism verses old
A Review of: On the Move:
Feminism for a new generation, Edited by Natasha Walter,
Little Brown 1999, & The Whole Woman, by Germaine
Greer, Doubleday, 1999
IN 1913, Rebecca West, a journalist and suffrage campaigner,
stated: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely
what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist
whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat
or a prostitute".
As the new millennium approaches, a proliferation of books
seeking to redefine feminism have hit the shelves. On the Move:
Feminism for a new generation, edited by Natasha Walter, is
one of these. 'Old feminist' Germaine Greer has been sufficiently
angered by 'new feminists' such as Walter to write a sequel to her
famous book, The Female Eunuch, which she swore she would never
do. Entitled The Whole Woman, it has reached number one in
the British non-fiction bestseller list.
If a new generation of women are looking for an ideology or a
movement which will point a way forward, they will not find it in
either of these books. They are more likely to feel totally
confused. Not only do they send out different messages, but the
collection of essays in Walter's book contradict each other. In
her previous book The New Feminism, Walter outlined a
feminism which could embrace anybody and everybody who 'vaguely
agreed' with equality between men and women. On the Move
continues that theme. "No one will agree with everything that
everyone says in the book", writes Walter in the
introduction. That's putting it mildly.
"The personal is still political"
"The personal is still political", says journalist
Katharine Viner in her contribution, immediately taking issue with
Walter's claim that 'New Feminism' "aims to separate the
personal from the political". Walter argues that 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.
Viner on the contrary, lambasts the 'anything goes' culture
which says 'if it feels good, do it'. Zoe Ball and Helen Baxendale
posing in Esquire in skin tight leather and suspenders, or Ulrika
Johnson manacled in Loaded, are not images of empowered women but
women manipulated into male fantasy figures; an expression of
men's power over women:
"Women today are led to believe that anything goes: that
wearing a frilly dress is reclaiming the right to be feminine,
that laughing at sexist jokes is ironic proof of how far we've
come, that plastic surgery is fine because it makes you feel good.
But try asking for equal pay while wearing a baby-doll frocků
The personal-is-political was never meant to be a prescription of
how to live your life... what it was really meant to do was create
an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by political
factors. Of how the fact that women were not economically and
politically equal to men meant that their relationships with men
were unequal too".
For Helen Wilkinson, even Margaret Thatcher is a feminist, a
'free market feminist'. "In her", she writes, "we
saw a woman who did not shy away from showing how much she loved
power, and in turn she made it legitimate for us to love it too...
We are all power feminists now".
Aminatta Forna, on the other hand, rails against 'power
feminists' who have benefited most from the achievements of
previous generations and now, having done all right thank you very
much, publicly renounce feminism as irrelevant: "Having
achieved (enough) equality they declare the battle won".
She is scathing in her attack on these 'sell-out
anti-feminists': "The overt rejection of feminism is akin to
the denouement in Animal Farm when the pigs move into the
farmhouse; all women are equal but some are more equal an
others". She goes on to explain how only a minority of
middle-class women come anywhere near to 'having it all' and that
for women without partners, or whose partners are without decent
incomes, 'choice' or individual fulfilment is a fallacy.
But the mainstream media continue to concentrate on lifestyle
matters. "Women's issues are reduced to relationships, the
laments of single women, body image, holistic medicine and
therapy. Feminism is thus bled of its radical social or political
Livi Michael is even more forthright: "To women on or
below the breadline, whose main problems are shopping for food or
watching out for discarded needles in their children's play areas,
those feminists who focus on the personal, the mystical, the
psychological and, yes, the sexual aspects of feminism might as
well be staring up their own fannies without a speculum... It is
difficult to see what feminism can do when what is needed is
money, jobs, job training, housing, educational opportunity
Despite concentrating her essay on the economic and social
equalities which poorer women in particular still face, MP Oona
King's brand of New Labour feminism offers no solution.
"Anyone who shares the desire to reduce inequality and
promote opportunity must embrace feminism", she writes. How
exactly cutting the benefits of lone parents, introducing tuition
fees and scrapping the student grant are meant to promote
opportunities for women she doesn't explain. "Anyone who
thinks the need for feminism will diminish in the next
millennium", she continues, "is ignoring trends that
increase unpaid care-responsibilities for women (thus decreasing
their opportunities in other areas)". She then identifies
these trends as privatisation, retrenchment in the state sector
and cut-backs in social services, all of which are taking place
under the New Labour government of which she remains uncritical.
Several of the essays are interviews with young women who
explain what feminism means to them. For Karen Loughey, aged 15,
feminism is about "finding equality between men and women in
all areas of society". For Julia Press, 18, "feminism is
about trying to get women equality with men". Summarising the
essays in On the Move, Walter states "all the writers
here rage against inequality", and really that's the only
thing which unites them.
The Whole Woman
But in The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer doesn't even
agree with that. "We all agree that women should have equal
pay for equal work, be equal before the law, do no more housework
than men do, spend no more time with children than men do - or do
we? If the future is men and women dwelling as images of each
other in a world unchanged, it is a nightmare" writes Greer
in her 'warm-up'. "Unpopular feminists 'fight' for
liberation; popular feminists work for equality".
Greer's book is a personal response to both 'new' and 'post'
feminists. "It was not until feminists of my own generation
began to assert with apparent seriousness that feminism had gone
too far that the fire flared up in my belly. When the lifestyle
feminists chimed in that feminism had gone just far enough in
giving them the right to 'have it all', i.e. money, sex and
fashion, it would have been inexcusable to remain silentů It's
time to get angry again". And that's exactly what she does,
in her own inimitable style.
In a stream of consciousness she lays bare every possible way
in which women are still discriminated against and oppressed: paid
and unpaid work, as mothers, violence against women, sexuality,
women's bodies, childbirth, abortion, cosmetic surgery,
pornography, the Child Support Agency, all get the Greer
treatment. While there are many facts and figures, often she
doesn't bother to back up her arguments, employing sweeping
generalisations and exaggerations. "A love of idleness is
another characteristic that male Homo Sapien has inherited from
his anthropoid ancestors", for example. Or "men don't
shop, even for their own underpants"; while women are subject
to a "gynaecological abattoir". She's witty, quirky and
often off the wall.
In On the Move, Helen Wilkinson applauds women throwing
of the cloak of victimhood, coming close to playing down the
oppression women still face. Greer, on the other hand, often falls
into the trap of 'victim feminism', portraying women as passive
recipients of a patriarchal male conspiracy. At times she appears
to imply that women are colluding in their own oppression or at
the very least are not aware of what is happening to them. She
seems impatient with and even a bit contemptuous of other women
who are not as 'enlightened' or aware as she is.
Both books have one thing in common, a total failure to offer
any explanation of or workable strategy for tackling women's
oppression. In stressing 'liberation' rather than equality, Greer
goes furthest, but she never really explains what she means.
"Liberationists sought the world over for clues to what
women's lives could be like if they were free to define their own
values, order their own priorities and decide their own
But how? She seems to recognise that some men are oppressed
under the current system and yet flirts with separatism. She
correctly states that "the most powerful entities on earth
are not governments but the multi-national corporations". And
she gives a glimpse of how things could be different: "With
modern technology nobody needs to die of the diseases of
malnutrition any more; every year untold millions of people do
just that. We could distribute food rationally from places of
plenty to places of scarcity; we don't. We could provide everyone
on birth with clean water; we don't. We could use our standing
armies and billions of pounds worth of material to protect people
against the consequences of natural disasters; we don't".
But again, how? Nowhere does she engage with the question of
how economic and cultural resources could be democratically
controlled and society re-organised in the interests of both
women, who are doubly oppressed, and those men who are also
exploited under the current system. She fails to make the crucial
link between class society and women's oppression and between
socialism and liberation. Like On the Move, The Whole
Woman tells us how bad things (still) are, but not what we can
do about it.